Written by Romalyn Mirador, CSU STEM VISTA 2015-16, San Jose State University EPICS
My VISTA project is to implement the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program at San Jose State University (SJSU). EPICS is a service-learning course founded by Purdue University in 1995 in which engineering students form multidisciplinary teams to work on community-identified projects. A pilot year for EPICS was in place by the time I started my VISTA year. As part of my project, I have worked on writing a new permanent course proposal to make EPICS an official course in the SJSU catalog, creating lecture materials and assignments, developing grading rubrics and project websites, investigating the students’ level of interest in the course, and getting feedback. I also set up the Design Review event where the students presented their projects and progress to community partners and industry professionals.
While working on EPICS lecture materials, I found myself learning about professional development along with the students. The professor of the course, Keith Perry, has years of industry experience and I have learned so much from him while sitting in during the EPICS class. I found myself thinking about what a great opportunity I’ve been given – I was developing professionally from the program I was trying to develop.
EPICS is a unique course that I did not have a chance to take in my undergraduate years so the material I was researching and putting together for the students were new to me too. Some of the lessons the students had included human-centered and multidisciplinary design, effective interview techniques, project management, leadership, and user needs and requirements. As an engineering student myself, I learned about the technical aspects of the discipline and how to apply those to certain academic problems and projects. What I didn’t really learn in my classes was how to make a product with customers and their needs in mind. Also, it wasn’t very often that I worked with students or other professionals outside of my discipline. Leadership and project management skills are referenced in classes, and there may be a few assignments here and there; however, those skills are better learned during work experiences like internships, which not all students had. EPICS gives students a chance to gain real world project experience. They work with other people (students and professionals) within and outside of their discipline, talk to customers and assess their needs, and develop a suitable and sustainable project.
I was (and still am) excited for the students that came into EPICS. EPICS, I believe, is a course that is much needed and could provide experiences that not many engineering classes give. As I observed and spoke with the students of the pilot course, I noticed that they agreed. Currently there are three projects: Hygiene for Homeless, StudyBuddy, and Automated Inductive Wireless Electric Vehicle Charger. There is a mix of computer, mechanical and software engineering students and they have already accomplished so much. Hygiene for Homeless is building a portable shower and laundry facility and recently received funding for their structure. The StudyBuddy team is working with IBM and their Watson Supercomputer to develop a question and answer tool for middle and high school computer science students. The electric vehicle team is working with an SJSU professor to build a robot that will deploy among a fleet of parked electric vehicles and wirelessly charge them up.
Of course, these projects were not without obstacles – group arguments, finding customers, tailoring their project to the customers’ needs, getting funding and materials, meeting deadlines, etc. However, the students came to learn and realize that these are some of the kinds of obstacles that they will face as professionals in the industry working to complete a project. Also, as one student mentioned, they feel a sense of urgency to finish their project not just for a grade, but because it was an important need for the customer. The EPICS students have demonstrated the desire to learn and succeed not to just pass a class, but to do meaningful work and gain hands-on, real-world experience.
I’m very proud of the students and thrilled to see them get this experience that I didn’t have before graduating. As the VISTA for this program, the students inspire me to make EPICS an enjoyable and unforgettable program. They made me realize that this is not just another assignment; I am helping develop a sustainable program that will help students become professionals and leaders that can do good for their community. I am thankful for the chance to continue to learn and grow with these students throughout my VISTA year here.