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New Community-Based Engineering Course Focuses on Local Projects

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

When computer science professor Jay Brockman started at Notre Dame over 24-years-ago, he engaged in typical professorial activities -- teaching, training graduate students, researching, and publishing, but over the past ten years, he has shifted his attention towards fostering deeper connections between Notre Dame and the South Bend community.

Now a typical day for him looks fairly different. Brockman explains, “In addition to teaching a class, it usually includes one, two or three meetings off-campus -- either in downtown South Bend, at a local school, or with musicians in Chicago.”

At the forefront of all his community projects are dedicated students, eager to apply their skills to real-world problems.

His newest endeavor is a rather atypical tech-elective course, Community-Based Engineering Design Projects, in which eleven students split into three teams are tasked with tackling local social and environmental concerns.

This course grew out of the Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem, a project Brockman helped found a number of year ago, which puts high school and college summer interns to work in the Southeast Neighborhood on ecological restoration and community revitalization projects.

In October, the idea of this course emerged as a way to keep the momentum of the the Bowman Creek Project going throughout the year -- this semester two of the three students groups are undertaking projects started by interns that interns will carry forward this summer.

Student presenting his team's progress to classmates.
Student presenting his team's progress to classmates.

The first project is working with a vacant-lot optimization matrix that interns built using GIS layers. The idea is to give decision-makers easy access to the social, economical, and technical data they need when considering reuse options -- for example should a given plot be split between neighbors, turned into a pocket park or maintained for potential future construction? Current students are looking at how to improve this tool, by perhaps making it more user friendly for community members without technical background.

The second team of students are deep in the process of investigating the best way to carry forward Bowman Creek Education Ecosystem’s work on using green infrastructure to combat combined sewage overflow. Last summer interns built ten model rain gardens. Current students are considering designing an educational program for South Bend residents on the benefits of rain gardens and green infrastructure.

The third team of students is connected to Notre Dame’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). They are exploring how EWB, which recently completed a well in Sangmélima, Cameroon, could become involved in the South Bend community. These students were given the wide-open task of finding a project for their club to take on. At the beginning of the semester articles starting appearing in the South Bend Tribune about lead contamination in the Near Northwest Neighborhood, so the team is investigating what role students could play in combating these issues.

Brockman is excited about the work the students are undertaking in the community, but he is also excited about how this course helps students gain skills in the open-ended, messiness of real-world engineering problems. He explains, “There isn’t a ‘right’ answer -- there’s no place you can turn online to check your answer. You can’t do things last minute and we’re not going to do things for you. The answers are all out there in the neighborhood and you have to call people and interview people.”

Professor Brockman is teaching this course with graduate student Maria Krug. To Krug teaching students how to engage in human-centered design is central to the course, “Up until now we’ve told them, you’re not thinking about technical solutions at all, you’re learning about the people and getting to know what the problem is and then the second half of the course is when we’ll emphasize the solution part of it again.”

So far the course has been challenging, but exciting for students. Chris Clarizio explains that throughout his time as a student he’s been jumping at the bit to be involved in real-world problems, this course has given him that opportunity. He’s found it both challenging and rewarding, “I’m used to being told to do this via step A, B and C and then we are done. This class has been opposite to that in a lot of ways.”

Brockman hopes to grow this course in the future. He has a vision of students from different colleges coming together in interdisciplinary teams to solve problems across the South Bend Community. This course could become a model both in engineering education and university-community engagement.