Engineering students learn by doing
EPICS program gives ASU students opportunities to put their education to work by helping communities solve problems
Jared Schoepf, an undergraduate majoring in chemical engineering, leads a team of students designing environmentally sustainable ways to keep trash out of the Rio Salado Habitat Area in Phoenix.
Using computer modeling to simulate water flow, the team is working with the City of Phoenix to rethink how an extensive system of storm drains empty water from the city’s streets into the urban habitat restoration area and wildlife refuge.
Taylor Barker, an undergraduate chemical engineering major, and her student team – the Green Girl Gamers – have an idea to get young girls off the couch and bring them outdoors to play a nature-oriented video game.
Using mobile game platforms, including phones, her team’s game design aims to revolutionize how kids today play, combining active play outdoors with the latest game technology.
Sergio Sanchez, an undergraduate civil engineering major, is president of both a student club – Bridges to Prosperity – and leader of a student team of the same name that is working together to build a suspended bridge in Guatemala later this year that will connect a remote rural village to a main road -- and to the outside world.
Each of the Arizona State University students got involved in the projects through a program in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering that uses the service-learning model to engage students in the community – locally, nationally, and internationally – and give them opportunities to apply their engineering education and design skills to solve real-world problems.
Sun Devil twist
Adopted from a program established at Purdue University in 1995, the Engineering Projects in Community Service program – or EPICS – organizes teams of undergraduate students to design, build and deploy systems to solve engineering-based problems for not-for-profit organizations such as charities, schools and governmental entities.
EPICS operates through a series of courses offered for the first time at ASU in the fall 2009 semester that enrolled about 80 students, making ASU one of more than 20 university partners in the national EPICS program. The program is administered by the engineering schools’ Office of Academic and Student Affairs.
ASU EPICS director Richard Filley gave the courses a distinctive Sun Devil twist. He dubbed them EPICS GOLD – to denote the goals to be “green” and sustainable, original and creative, to provide leadership development and teamwork experience, and emphasizing the application of engineering design fundamentals.
Filley’s EPICS GOLD I class is the first of a series of three service-learning courses in which teams of engineering, computer science and construction students collaborate to assess goals and develop plans for long-term projects that would benefit local communities.
EPICS GOLD II is a “design and build” class that can be taken for multiple semesters, and EPICS GOLD III is a senior-year capstone design class taken along with students’ senior-year project class in their specific engineering degree program.
Students aren’t required to take all three courses. But EPICS GOLD projects are typically expected to take a year or more to complete, so students are encouraged to participate for multiple consecutive semesters. It’s expected that some students will even take an EPICS class along with their regular classes during their entire stay at ASU.
Making a difference
Students also are encouraged to join the EPICS MAROON Club, which focuses on forming teams of student volunteers for one-time community service events. All ASU students are welcome to join the club.
Jasmine Nejad, an undergraduate bioengineering major in the EPICS GOLD II class, currently holds the EPICS MAROON & GOLD Ambassador Chair. Nejad says the spring semester classes were split up into 10 teams, each working on a different engineering service-learning project – each with assistance from faculty advisers and local organizations to help implement the teams’ plans.
“I was very interested in this class after hearing about the various projects that would be offered.” Nejad says. “This class gives engineering students the opportunity to get involved in projects that benefit not only the local community but the global community.”
Susanna Young, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student, says the class gives students the advantage of getting experience with engineering design strategies, which prepares them for the major design projects that senior engineering students must complete to graduate.
Young says engineering students in the United States have access to a higher level of technical education than what is available to students in many other countries, and she feels a responsibility to share the skills she’s learning.
Her team got an opportunity to have an international impact when it participated in the Malawi Empowerment project, which Young led, part of larger project at ASU to aid economically disadvantaged villagers in the African country of Malawi.
Young’s team found a creative way to design a new medical clinic for villagers, using 40-foot-long shipping containers to house the facility.
“EPICS GOLD has given me the chance to volunteer while also giving me invaluable teamwork experience and a leadership opportunity,” she says. “I feel like what we do in EPICS makes a difference, makes the world a better place.”
Diverse range of projects
EPICS GOLD student teams are tackling a wide variety of challenges. At the Chetonabikash Girls College, a junior high and high school in Bangladesh, an EPICS GOLD team led by Krishna Magar Roka, an undergraduate aeronautical engineering major, is designing low-cost ways to use solar power to overcome frequent “brownouts” and give the school reliable power.
The eBird team, led by Mark Scheppe, an undergraduate computer science major, is working with the world renowned School of Ornithology at Cornell University to enhance eBird, which is used by millions of birdwatchers worldwide. It uses with hotspot wikis to provide more timely information for users about where and when to find the best bird-watching sites.
Two Recycled Rides teams are working with the National Auto Body Council to streamline and expand a nationwide system that currently attracts the donation of about 75 rebuilt automobiles per year to deserving low-income families.
The EPICS MAROON Club now includes about 100 students in it membership. The students have already worked with the local United Way organization – raising more than $4,000 in the process – and the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department to help rebuild a trail in the city’s South Mountain park.
More recently, the EPICS MAROON club volunteered for the Arizona Rock ‘N Roll Paint-a-Thon, helping to paint houses of low-income elderly and disabled homeowners in the Phoenix area.
High school connections
EPICS at ASU also has a high school outreach program that involves three local high schools - Xavier College Preparatory, Phoenix Union Bioscience, and Marcos de Niza - in service-learning projects in collaboration with the ASU students.
Intel Corp. has also provided scholarship funding that will allow six outstanding high school students to take an EPICS GOLD class at ASU in the fall 2010 semester.
“I want the EPICS experience to be the most rewarding and fun thing an engineering student will do as they complete their studies here,” Filley says.
“Our students quickly realize that they are tackling real problems, dealing with real people, and can make a real difference. That matters a lot. My goal is for the EPICS program is to not only help us retain engineering students, but to work with our high school partners to recruit top students into engineering,” he says.
“In creating the EPICS program and our teams, we’ve looked closely at both the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges and ASU’s efforts to address those technological challenges,” Filley says.
“What better way can there be than getting bright young students involved in an important way, to help them see – and be a part of – the many excellent ways that engineers contribute to society and serve the greater good?”