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Life’s Lessons

Tailoring curricula to solve community issues

By Cathy Yao

Ten Odyssey High School Students and eighteen MIT freshmen crowd into a small classroom one Thursday afternoon for a section of the introductory writing class: Culture Shock! Writing, Editing, and Publishing in Cyberspace (21W.731).

The two groups of students are meeting to collaborate on creating an online magazine for the class. The last magazine, created in Fall 2000, was a compilation of the freshmen students’ best essays. This year, the class is hoping to include submissions from their writing buddies at Odyssey.

This project is in collaboration with WriteBoston, a program which coordinates local high schools with universities to form programs to improve writing and inspire a love for the art.

“Culture Shock!” is just one example of the abundant and various forms of service learning going on at MIT. Service learning is a teaching method that brings community service projects into the academic curriculum to enrich both the student’s learning experience and the surrounding community. Working in real-life community projects reinforces the principles taught in the classroom while at the same time offering help the local community.

Service learning in engineering

The Product Engineering Process (2.009) is a capstone course in the course for mechanical engineering. This term, ten teams of sixteen students each are developing a device to help people with developmental disabilities shower by themselves. Showering, a task many often overlook as a small part of daily life, is a large source of personal dignity for the disabled.

Arthur Musah ’04 and Rachana D. Oza ’04 have designed a way to manufacture charcoal briquettes from waste products in the timber industry of Ghana, providing a new alternative source to wood for fuel, in their public service design seminar.

An effort to organize and support ‘service learning’ at MIT was started two years ago by Sally Susnowitz, Director of the Public Service Center, and Amy Smith of the Edgerton Center. Service learning classes incorporate a component of service to the community. The goal was to not only bridge the gap between theory and practice, but also to increase student awareness of impact they can make in the application of their studies.

“Service learning can not only help students understand the material better, but it also gets them more excited about how the work fits into the world and what they can do with their skills for the greater good,” said Amy Banzaert, Service Learning and Outreach Coordinator of the PSC.

Service learning is meant to provide a better understanding of community dynamics, global moral and ethical issues, and civic responsibility.

Ongoing service learning programs have been established in freshman advising seminars, public service design seminars, certain elective, core, and capstone classes, and thesis projects. There are currently 15 classes with service learning integrated into their curricula, ranging from “Culture Shock!” to 2.009.

In freshman advising seminars, service learning can be a transition between high school and college by allowing freshman to become more familiar with their new community.

Public service design seminars have a number of different focuses. In one project, students are making security grates for homeless shelters.

Another way to get involved in community service is to participate in the campus-wide IDEAS Competition, based on the same principle as MIT’s $50K competition. In the IDEAS Competition, the best student-proposed community service projects are awarded up to $20,000 to help implement the ideas. This year’s funded projects range from making a watch that helps the deaf deal with telephones and doorbells to helping homeless children in Nairobi.

According to Banzaert, service learning at MIT is heading for further growth. Although it will remain an optional student opportunity, it will grow “as much as appropriate, no more, no less, but at this point, there has been plenty of positive feedback.”

Service opportunities beyond the classroom

Besides service learning, which must be done for credits, there are many many other opportunities to do community service outside of the classroom, particularly as the holiday season comes upon us.

The Giving Tree is an annual holiday toy drive with a twist. Sponsored by the PSC and the Panhellenic Association, Giving Tree matches members of the MIT community with underprivileged families from various local community organizations. Participants are given the name, age, sex, and gift requests of a child. This year, the PSC has around 800 children that would otherwise not receive any presents this holiday season.

“The Giving Tree is a really satisfying endeavor because it’s a toy drive that’s much more personal because we can match people,” said Heather Trickett, project coordinator and office manager of the PSC. “Folks really like the idea of knowing the child instead of just dropping off a toy in a box.”

Student-led initiatives encouraged

Aside from the many programs set up through the PSC, there are also countless programs initiated and run by students. For example, the CommuniTech program coordinated by students bridges the technological divide by refurbishing old computers for needy families and also teaching them how to use them.

”If nothing else, I want people to leave knowing that the PSC is the place to go for community service, big or small,” Banzaert said. Students are welcome any time in the office, currently located on the fifth floor of the student center in W20-547. In early December, the PSC will be moved to the more central location of room 4-104 in the Infinite Corridor.