seal  Purdue News

June 24, 2003

Purdue puts service-learning at center of academic stage

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University is incorporating student volunteerism into its academic curriculum.

The university recently approved a plan to tie community service projects to academic classroom learning. It's called service learning, and it's a national trend. Purdue's plan includes project grants and designating faculty fellows who will encourage other professors to incorporate service-learning projects in their classrooms.

"Service-learning is already a major part of many Purdue programs," said Don K. Gentry, vice provost for engagement. "These efforts demonstrate Purdue's dedication to giving back to the public in a way that benefits both our communities and our students."

Marne Helgesen, director of the Center for Instructional Excellence, who oversees Purdue's service-learning efforts, said: "By designating service-learning fellows and offering grants, we can create a cadre of faculty members who can work with their colleagues to institute service-learning into other courses.

The Center for Instructional Excellence will sponsor workshops and provide assistance for faculty members. The Office of the Provost also will establish $2,000 grants to support faculty service-learning efforts.

Over the past several years, service-learning has taken hold in many areas of campus. For example, in Purdue's Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), teams of undergraduates earn academic credit for multiyear, multidisciplinary projects that solve engineering- and technology-based problems for community and education organizations. Since its inception in 1995, EPICS has spread to 10 universities and, with support from the National Science Foundation and Microsoft Research, Purdue's EPICS team is leading a national partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

"It is our responsibility as educators not only to teach our students their discipline, but also to teach them how that discipline benefits the greater good," said EPICS cofounder and director Leah Jamieson, Purdue's Ransburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "This is the right thing to be doing for our students and an important thing for Purdue to be giving to its community."

John G. Pomery, associate professor of economics, who was one of Purdue's earliest service-learning advocates, said reflection is an important part of successful service-learning experiences.

"It's important for the service-learning not to simply act as an external laboratory for students," Pomery said. "For the students truly to grow from the experience, it is a necessity that they take time to think about the role they are playing in the community and the needs they are helping to fill."

In other service-learning classes at Purdue, projects have ranged from a history class working with residents of the Indiana Veterans' Home to record their biographies to landscape architecture students partnering with the City of Chicago to make the downtown's Michigan Avenue safe and accessible for the Segway scooter.

"A class that places Spanish students in a elementary school to tutor Hispanic students in Spanish has worked so well that the school requested more tutors for non-Hispanic students," Helgesen said. "The principal specifically asked for service-learning students, not volunteers, because of the service-learners' dedication."

Service-learning has extended beyond the Purdue campus. Campus Compact, a national advocacy group for service-learning, includes hundreds of member universities nationwide – and 31 of Indiana's colleges and universities.

"Universities around Indiana and throughout the country are embracing this important trend," Gentry said. "At Purdue, we take our commitment to service-learning very seriously. Our students are eager to serve the community, and that eagerness provides a chance for students to apply what they are learning and gain valuable real-world experience."

Writer: Matt Holsapple, (765) 494-2073,

Sources: Don K. Gentry, (765) 494-9095,

Marne Helgesen, (765) 496-6424,

Leah H. Jamieson, (765) 494-3653,

John G. Pomery, (765) 494-4515,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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