Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2005
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The Greater Good, Nebraska Engineering students integrate experiential learning with community service

By Roxane Gay
photos: Tim Randall & Constance Walter

Educators have spent years trying to determine how students learn best. They’ve looked to interactive curricula, team-based learning, positive reinforcement and integrating new technologies into the classroom. Construction management professor Tim Wentz is taking these theories on learning, and heading in a different direction, by incorporating service learning into his curricula. He recently received an Initiative for Teaching and Learning Excellence grant from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to incorporate service learning into the mechanical systems class, a unique course that focuses on mechanical systems and is cross-listed with architecture. “The course focuses on how a building behaves from both construction and architectural design perspectives,” said Wentz, who is collaborating with Bruce Fischer in construction management and Stuart Bernstein in construction systems.

 Stuart Bernstein, assistant professor of construction systems, with student Scott Massengale in front of a renovated home in Omaha. Stuart Bernstein, assistant professor of construction systems, with student Scott Massengale in front of a renovated home in Omaha.

 Tim Wentz, interim chair of construction management, with students at The Meeting Place.
Tim Wentz, interim chair of construction management, with students at The Meeting Place.

Architecture students Stephanie Peterson and Michael Sinclair and construction management student Lea Thoene work on their service learning project.
Architecture students Stephanie Peterson and Michael Sinclair and construction management student Lea Thoene work on thieir service learning project.

Throughout the semester, students will be divided into teams and told to prepare a response to a Request for Proposals. “I’m trying to determine the optimal configuration of teams,” said Wentz. He’ll be looking at how many students from construction management and how many architecture students should be in each team; the dynamics within each team; and ultimately, how to best incorporate service learning into a course. The project involves the Meeting Place, a former Baptist Church built in 1907 that now focuses on recovery programs. This summer, four students, two from architecture and two from construction management, began preliminary work on the project. “Four students are completely measuring The Meeting Place and creating a set of digital plans as the building is today,” said Wentz. This fall students are creating a proposal on how to best heat and cool the building and providing floor plans that will best serve the client’s needs. “The solutions the students come up with need to be ‘green’ and sustainable, both expectations that fit well with those of The Meeting Place.”

The service learning approach offers the unique opportunity for real-world situations to shape the course’s curriculum. Lectures and exams relate to the specific semester’s project so that Wentz is best able to teach about specific conditions students encounter on construction projects. The grade is based largely on how students perform on the semester project, and each student submits a written report and a drawdel (half drawing, half model). They also assess each other’s performance through peer assessment. In 2002, Wentz used service learning for a project at Christ Temple Church. “Students have been enthusiastic. The course material was originally perceived as boring by most students but now they take material and solve real-world problems,” said Wentz. Students also have the opportunity to meet with clients and discuss the issue of meeting expectations versus exceeding expectations.

At the end of the course, Christ Temple Church had students give presentations to members of the congregation, and renovations are currently underway, based on many of the students’ recommendations. “We also teach the students about how to ask questions to get the answers they truly need,” said Wentz. Already, there have been positive results. “The students have outperformed everything we’ve put in front of them. They keep raising the bar.” In the future, Wentz hopes that service learning becomes a more formal part of the curriculum. Other community organizations have started to hear about Wentz incorporating service into his classes and he has been contacted by the Nebraska State Fair and the owner of the Parish Building. While Nebraska Engineering students will gain valuable experience by applying classroom knowledge to a real world problem, the greater benefit is in the service they are providing to a community organization. “Service learning is important because students can learn more and learn deeper,” Wentz said. “And both students and the university have the opportunity to give back to the community.”

Stuart Bernstein, assistant professor of contructions systems, also believes in service learning and is in the process of incorporating service learning into all of his courses. “Service learning allows you to tie community involvement with the students’ education,” Bernstein said. During the spring 2005 semester, he incorporated an interdisciplinary service project into his CET 4200 course that focuses on personnel and supervisory methods. “Students had the opportunity to work as project managers and direct more than 250 student volunteers, utilizing their construction background as a resource,” said Bernstein. He worked with Family Housing Advisory Services of Omaha to find a suitable renovation project and decided upon the homes slated for the UNO Service Learning Academy’s Seven Days of Service program. “The original intent was to find two houses, approximately 10 years old, that needed a new bathroom, kitchen, deck and paint job,” Bernstein said. What they ended up with were two 90-year-old homes that were extensively distressed. Bernstein assessed the situation and resolved that he and his students would still be able to accomplish the home makeovers.

Bernstein is working with three University of Nebraska at Omaha professors and their students on the project. Communications professor David Ogden had students do public relations work for the project. The story was picked up by the Associated Press newswire and was featured in many local newspapers and television newscasts. Foreign languages professor Anna Carballal had students translate brochures for Family Housing Advisory Services from English to Spanish. Social work professor Paul Sather’s students spent their time recruiting volunteers; raising awareness of the project; and collecting such donations as building materials, tools, food for the volunteers and door prizes for the reception. Bernstein’s students had to commit to working at least two days during spring break and every class meeting was somehow connected to the overall project. At the beginning of the semester, Bernstein and his students walked through the two project homes then began to break the project into more manageable pieces.

By the time Spring Break arrived, the students were ready to manage and motivate their volunteers. “As the project evolved, we were able to see tangible results and my students reinforced their volunteers’ attitudes with positive reinforcement. In the end, the volunteers took ownership of the project,” said Bernstein. Once the project ended, students wrote papers discussing how the project went and their feelings on the work they accomplished.

Bernstein already is looking forward to new opportunities for the next project for the nonprofit organization City Sprouts, a home that will be converted into office space and a partial residence with ADA access. He also has been contacted by Fontenelle Forest, which heard about his other community service work through local media reports. They are interested in building a sky tower and possibly a sky walkway throughout the forest. “We will get involved, one way or another,” Bernstein said. As he reflects on what his students accomplished in one semester and the impact their efforts had on the community, Bernstein is very proud. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of students,” he said.