Tara Kulkarni, PhD, PE Assistant Professor | Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
During the fall semester, 30 junior and senior year civil and environmental engineering students participated in nine different service-learning projects, working with 10 different community partners. These projects were part of a four-week lab experience that included developing and executing projects useful to various community partners.
Student-teams became familiar with their community partners; they negotiated a scope of work; developed interim deadlines for specific deliverables; and then researched, designed and developed content to fulfill the needs of their community partners.The projects ranged from teaching third-graders the different components of landfills as a way to increase their understanding of solid waste management, to engineering designs to improve parking lot erosion issues to protect nearby rivers and streams, to energy education and rainwater harvesting. Several of these projects involved elementary-through-high school students in multiple schools in Vermont. For example, we reached almost 250 students in the following Vermont schools:
- Williamstown Middle High School, in Williamstown, Vt. (approximately 10 high school students)
- Northfield Middle School, Northfield, Vt. (Volunteer green team of about 10 students)
- St. Johnsbury Academy, St. Johnsbury, Vt. (approximately 120 middle school students)
- Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vt. (approximately 40 students in fourth and fifth grades)
- Union Elementary School in Montpelier, Vt. (approximately 60 students in two third grade classrooms, and one fifth grade classroom)
Students used lab time for travel to their project sites, and work with their partners. They also worked on their projects using additional hours outside lab times as needed. During the first three weeks of the project, the Norwich team members were asked to reflect on a set of three questions:
- How have they related to their community partners?
- How has this experience helped their individual growth?
- How does this experience relate back to their course content?
One team worked with local fifth-graders on planning a new playground while considering issues of storm water runoff.
The student team visited the school and the fifth grade classroom during two weeks of their four-week project. They involved the students in determining problem areas of standing water on their playground, explained the consequences of poor storm water management, and asked for fifth graders’ input in a potential new design. The Norwich student team developed an overall concept drawing and shared it with the fifth graders, explaining to them the engineering design process and the iterative approach engineers use in their designs as they work toward an improved solution.
Here are some Norwich student reflections on the experience:
“I initially went into the project underestimating what 5th graders knew about storm water management and problems they faced with their playground. They knew about culverts, separate sewer and storm water systems and erosion. The fact they knew about these issues made communication with the class easier.”
“The best learning point from this project was that the locals know the best. When we asked the children to identify areas of concern on the playground, they right away knew areas of concern. This shows that the boots on the ground know the most information about the site.”
“The greatest skills that I have developed through this project thus far are my ability to communicate to a varying audience and to interpret the requests of the client. Public speaking has never been the easiest thing for me, and when everyone expects you to know everything about the subject then it is even harder. Being placed in front of a class of fifth-graders forced me to develop a plan quickly and to come up with a means to not only present my ideas, but also explain them in a way that could be understood by them.”
“This forced me to be able to adapt to an audience that I was not used to and ensure that the main points were clear enough so they could understand the importance of the project.”
Another student team split themselves to engage two third grade classrooms and walk the third graders through the waste management process using games and hands on activities. The team focused on the elements of waste products, recycling and composting. The elementary students learned about the processes waste undergoes from the time it is disposed until the time it enters the landfill and what transpires next. The significance of reducing the percentage of our waste that goes into landfills was emphasized, as the amount of land available for landfill use is shrinking. The lesson plans were developed as hands-on activities. The activities, to name a few, ranged from a dumpster dive to a jeopardy game. Some of the children were already somewhat knowledgeable on these topics having sorted their garbage into waste, recycling and composting piles at the school.
Here is one Norwich engineering student’s reflection on the project:
“As an engineering student who is looking to work in the environmental field upon graduation, I am extremely biased towards anything that will help the Earth. I’m always open to new ways to go green and make our planet last longer. Young children typically are open to new [approaches] since they’re always learning and trying to find their way in life. While talking about solid waste with these children, they were open to learning about what to do with the things they no longer need. They are realizing what they need to do to help the planet.”
“When I was in elementary school, it was always a good day when a guest speaker was going to be present. The excitement of someone new and learning about a topic that seems so foreign was something I couldn’t wait to run home and tell my parents about. The children that I have had the pleasure of working with showed this same excitement from the moment I walked into the classroom. As we went along with our lesson, the kids were eager to get involved and answer questions. You could tell by this excitement that they would want to share our lessons with their peers and families.”
These are just two examples of the service-learning experiences from this class. Overall, during Norwich University’s Year of Service, a small group of students made a large difference in multiple communities in Vermont. Introducing K-12 students to Norwich, to engineering, and involving them in solving some of the environmental problems in their communities should pay large dividends in the future, as these budding members of our next generation take on important professional roles to solve big global challenges. Our own students gained some experience and deepened or expanded their academic knowledge, amidst the stresses, frustrations, and joys of meaningful service and learning.