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Team-based Learning Meets Community Service At Clarkson

Many colleges offer community service options for their students. But at Clarkson University, service learning not only helps students become better members of their communities, it helps them become better engineers, Web designers, and educators.

Recently, students in an interdisciplinary course on "Poverty in the North Country" took their classroom lectures into the local community as part of a Habitat for Humanity work crew. As Denny Devoe '01, a mechanical engineering major from Rochester, N.Y., describes it, their experiences "changed the way we look at poverty and poor people," and affected "the way we look at our jobs and responsibilities as engineers."

The house was built on a hill overlooking the Grasse River, and basically, it was falling right down that hill, said Kyle Johnson '01, a mechanical engineering major from Meredith, N.H. "When they first built the house, they did not build a foundation."

Steve Alexander '99, a technical communications major from Norfolk, N.Y., worked with the crew and documented their progress with a digital camera, which he then used to create a Web presentation for the class. "The big embankment made it especially challenging and interesting. It was all sand. We didn't get any dirt at all, it was all loose sand, and there was no substructure."

The students began by removing the back porch, literally tearing it apart. The plan, said Mark Kreutzberg '01, a mechanical engineering major from Yorktown Heights, N.Y, was to build a double-retaining concrete wall about 16-feet long and 3-4 feet deep. When finished, Devoe explained, the house would rest on that foundation. "Then the plan is to put on a second level."

The reason we chose Habitat for Humanity was because it was a way to get outdoors and get some hands-on work experience, said Jason Mann '01, a civil and environmental engineering major from Tupper Lake, N.Y. "We didn't know how many other things we would learn."

I think the engineers here will be better at our jobs because of this experience, said Mann. "We see the connection between our design work in the labs and the lives of real people."

And Steve Alexander, the technical communications major, "felt good because I put my graphical and Internet skills to use in a way that could help other Clarkson students learn about local poverty. It was more inspiring than just a project you do for a grade."

Dr. Passaro, an anthropologist in Clarkson's School of Liberal Arts, designed the course to help students gain a better understanding of the lives of less fortunate members of the surrounding communities. The hands-on service learning component of the course, she explained, "reflects a key aspect of the Clarkson experience- students learn so much that is not quantifiable when they work in interdisciplinary teams on real-world projects. At Clarkson, we insure that students have a variety of team-based experiences in all fields of study, and students typically consider them to be the most important and memorable aspects of their educations."

Among the other local organizations Passaro's students worked with were Head Start, Meals on Wheels, the Potsdam Neighborhood Center, and local church- and community-based thrift shops.

Heather Averill, a business administration major from Norwood, N.Y., summed up what seemed like the feelings of all the students, from every major, in the room. "If I ever teach anyone, students or my own children, I will want them to they learn to get to know other people before making assumptions about them. We're lucky to be at Clarkson, and we need to share what we learn so we can make the world more livable for everyone."

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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