seal  Purdue News

From the summer 2003 edition of Purdue Engineering Extrapolations

Service Learning

Purdue students + EPICS = better engineers

"The lady’s here!" Although it took some getting used to, Jennifer Harms now realizes that the students mean her when she steps into a classroom at Happy Hollow Elementary School in West Lafayette, her Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) partner. The award-winning program teams undergraduates in engineering and nonengineering disciplines to design and create products for local social service agencies and other nonprofit organizations.

Jennifer Harms
Download photo

"The kids are great–they like having someone older around," says Harms, who’s in her fourth year at Purdue. She’s majoring in electrical engineering, with a minor in management.

Her favorite EPICS project? Imagine a harp, but with laser beams instead of strings. Her team used cadmium sulfide photodetectors to sense the laser beams. When you play
the harp by "brushing" the laser beams with your fingers, a keyboard connected to the sensors sounds the tones.

The laser harp is the latest addition to the children’s museum her EPICS team is creating at the elementary school. Harms wrote the proposal and served as project manager.

Like many students, Harms didn’t have a clear picture of how her work in the classroom would translate into a career. EPICS sharpened her focus. "EPICS has kept me in engineering. It has made me realize that as an engineer, I will be useful."

"Engineers solve problems," she continues. "In EPICS, once the general project idea is approved, the team is free to do anything they want with it. It’s open-ended and hands-on."

Teamwork is important. "Working in project teams, I’ve learned things I wouldn’t have even thought of otherwise," Harms says. "Last year, one of my team members was walking through Toys R Us, and he noticed a child’s keyboard. The next day, he told us about his great new idea for our harp’s tone generator–that keyboard. That’s what teamwork is about: different people bringing ideas together to make a tangible whole."

EPICS has made her a better communicator. "We have to write technical papers and make a lot of presentations–lab meetings with our faculty advisor; design review meetings with other professors, members of the community, and our contact person; and a final, formal presentation upon completion of the project," Harms says. In September, she traveled to Washington DC to speak about EPICS at the National Science Foundation.

"I’m a better engineer because of EPICS," Harms says. "It’s been excellent!"

Writer: Mary Lundstrom

Photo: Vincent Walter