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NMSU engineering links community service and the classroom

Engineering students at New Mexico State University are taking what they learn out of the classroom and laboratories and into the local community and beyond. Students have applied their engineering skills on real-life projects for years and plans are now underway to make experiential learning part of the formal engineering curriculum.


Two men examine parts for a robot during the New Mexico BEST Robotics competition.
NMSU senior Matthew Cardiel, mechanical engineering (left), helps out a New Mexico BEST Robotics team coach on practice day. Engineering students volunteered to provide guidance to middle- and high-school teams on the design and construction of their robots. (NMSU photo by Linda Fresques)
Three people gather around plans to help with the rezoning of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope property in Las Cruces.
Kenny Stevens, NMSU Engineers Without Borders adviser (left); Nicole Martinez, executive director of Mesilla Valley Community of Hope (center); and NMSU Engineers Without Borders students examine plans NMSU EWB designed to help Martinez with rezoning the Camp Hope site to accommodate overnight camping, which would allow the tent community for the homeless to remain on the property. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)

"Experiential learning is the combination of community service and project-based learning," said College of Engineering Associate Dean of Academics Sonya Cooper. "It's happening throughout the college in some programs and we are working toward incorporating it into the engineering curriculum."

Getting students involved early on in their academic experience will help the college meet the challenge of retaining students in the program said Assistant Dean Patricia Sullivan.

"An estimated 40 percent of the entering freshman engineering students have not yet taken calculus, meaning that from their freshman to sophomore year, many of them may not be exposed to an engineering course because they are taking developmental math courses," Sullivan said. "The challenge is to keep them committed to engineering until then. We're trying to align project-based learning with our freshman experience to expose students to what engineers actually do."

Retention in engineering programs is a problem across the nation. The "President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness 2011 Year End Report: Road Map to Renewal" addresses the problem. It states, "Only 14 percent of undergraduates in U.S. postsecondary institutions are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Moreover, after the first year, 40 percent of those enrolled in these disciplines switch majors."

The report further cites one critical factor to retaining engineering students is providing them with opportunities that connect their classroom learning with real world opportunities.

Historically, core engineering curriculum incorporates hands-on learning as a requisite through a senior capstone project, many of which are multidisciplinary in nature. The College of Engineering is taking the next step by expanding opportunities for similar experiences among undergraduate students at the freshman, sophomore and junior levels and incorporating a community service component.

"Every engineering department has a program to give students hands-on experience, usually through a senior capstone project," said Kenny Stevens, associate professor of engineering technology and chair of the College of Engineering Service Learning and Outreach committee, which is charged with developing the service-learning curriculum. "The idea is to identify a class within each department that would lend itself to doing a service learning project in the community."

Cooper has long been involved with the restoration and preservation of New Mexico's historic structures. She has involved student volunteers in restoration of numerous projects, including restoration of the Amador Hotel in Las Cruces to return the building to the 1912-period style, the time during which it was a thriving hotel.

"Seniors who participated in the project received class credit to accomplish various engineering deliverables such as creating structural as-built drawings, performing structural analyses and creating drainage and site plans," Cooper said. "All of the work done by the students is carefully reviewed."

"By 2014, we plan to have in place introductory engineering courses 101 and 102 that every freshman enrolled in engineering would be required to take," Cooper said. "We plan to incorporate experiential learning components into those courses. We are building on the model currently used in upper-level courses and formalizing it beginning with the freshman curriculum. It's a departure from the traditional path. Students get the opportunity to see the cool things that engineers do early on."

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Steven Stochaj is already incorporating service learning into EE109, an introductory course for electrical engineering students. During the fall 2012 semester, his students were involved in mentoring middle and high school student teams participating in the NM BEST Robotics Competition. Stochaj's students joined other undergraduates from across the college who were assigned to teams over the six-week competition as mentors for designing and building robots to complete a specified task. In total, 109 undergraduate engineering students from NMSU served as mentors to more than 450 middle and high school students.

"The experience gave our freshman engineering students an opportunity to become more familiar with their engineering discipline and become involved in public service," said Sullivan.

Both Stevens and Cooper stress the importance of community service, an activity they both embrace in their personal lives. They were instrumental in 2009 launching NMSU Engineers Without Borders on campus and have been actively involved in the group's activities ever since.

The group's first project was to build a 100-footlong, 18-footwide ford bridge across a semi-dry riverbed in Las Boquillas, Chihuahua, Mexico. They have since done projects in Bolivia and Nicaragua and plan to return to Nicaragua this summer to build a footbridge.

They also do local projects, and are currently working to help 50 or so homeless people living in Camp Hope, a Las Cruces tent city, to meet zoning and other requirements to remain in place. The tent city was established in 2011 and was intended to be temporary while funds were sought to expand the existing homeless shelter.

While Engineers Without Borders' sole purpose is to conduct community service projects, other student engineering organizations make community service part of their activities.

Groups like the Atomic Aggies, who are preparing for the NASA University Student Launch Initiative competition this coming April, participate in various outreach activities such as recent visits to Boys and Girls Clubs to increase interest in engineering through activities and presentations.

Engineers' Council President and chemical engineering student Amanda Sandoval is working toward making it easier for groups to participate in such community service activities.

"I'm trying to organize community involvement through E-Council so that we can inform the groups of opportunities. This would relieve the pressure from the chapter presidents, who are really busy," said Sandoval. "I extended my college career another year so that I could participate in these kinds of activities. The engineering experience gained at NMSU is not just about the grades."

"This is what the engineering field is all about," said Cooper. "We do things with real meaning to help people."