Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science has fundamentally changed the educational experience for its students through its community-based, interdisciplinary curriculum. Service learning and capacity building within the community is now an integral part of the school's educational mission.

Instructor Brennan Marcano, right, works with a student in the SLICE Program, a 16-month certification program which can lead to careers in information technology.
Instructor Brennan Marcano, right, works with a local community resident in the SLICE Program, a 16-month certification program, which can lead to careers in information technology.

Image credit: Fu Foundation School
of Engineering and Applied Science

Columbia's School of Engineering is the only academic engineering program in the United States to require community-based learning for all freshman students. Approximately 400 first-year students are engaged in community-based learning. The school hosts one of the nation's largest college-level community-based learning programs, involving nearly 800 students this year who are earning more than 1,600 credits and working on more than 100 community projects.

"A common thread uniting the school's community and service efforts is the belief that real-world experience dramatically improves the educational experience for students, encourages the development of socially responsible leaders, and promotes understanding of the social and cultural implications of engineering," said Jack McGourdy, the school's associate dean who leads civic engagement efforts. "The school has created a program that cultivates relationships with local schools, not-for-profit organizations and government agencies, and provides students with projects that challenge them to find practical solutions."

Highlights of the school's programs in service learning and capacity building include:

  • Interdisciplinary minors in entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability, requiring 19 credits of community-based learning
  • University Scholars Program Community Engagement Internships which
  • Service Learning in a Community Environment (SLICE) workforce development certificate program which provides local residents the chance to learn computer skills that can lead to careers in information technology
  • Community-based K-12 educational programs in Harlem schools
  • Harlem Robotics League, a hands-on program involving several Harlem middle schools in which students learn engineering principles through robotics design
  • Hayden Program for Engineering and Applied Science, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics enrichment program for middle and high school students, primarily from northern Manhattan

The school's first-year design students work with community partners such as the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the city's Department of Education, the Henry Viscardi School serving students with physical disabilities and health impairments, and Manhattan's 125th Street Business Improvement District.

Projects have included designing a playground for children with disabilities in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park, a series of assistive technology projects for physically disabled public school students, developing a Web site for a retirement home in Morningside Heights, and redesigning a homeless shelter's food pantry and the offices of a local business improvement district.

The school heavily markets its service-learning requirement during the admissions process, and as a result, enrollment of women and minorities has substantially increased. Female enrollment jumped to 38 percent this year from 22 percent in fall 2002. Minority enrollment reached 14 percent this year, up from 6 percent in 2002. The school's overall retention rate has hit 90 percent—its highest rate ever.

Top   |    E-mail this story

© Columbia University