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EPICS program undergoes major restructuring

Guyer, Meryl | Thursday, February 5, 2004

Courses that bring engineering students closer to the South Bend community and closer to real work experience will undergo major changes in the upcoming months, said Curt Freeland, director of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) at Notre Dame.

The program will disappear from course offerings, though students will still have the opportunity to perform similar service work in engineering and continue to receive credit for it, he said.

The EPICS courses, a spin-off of Purdue’s program by the same name that was developed in 1994, comprise an engineering service learning initiative that matches a group of students with a faculty advisor and a not-for-profit agency in St. Joseph County. Since its inception, the program has grown to include 1,300 students on 10 campuses.

At Notre Dame, students who wish to participate can come from any college but are asked to commit at least three semesters to their projects in order to provide continuity to the groups that undertake complex issues, thus providing the group with returning members and a mix of younger and older members. The agency comes to EPICS with a problem the students can solve using engineering.

The problems are diverse, ranging from developing databases for a homelessness prevention network to altering the structure of toys to make the small power switch more accessible to disabled children to constructing bridges and controlling erosion at the YMCA Camp Eberhart. The majority of EPICS work is done on the local level, but it also has a nationwide partnership with Habitat for Humanity so now each satellite school running an EPICS program will develop separate projects with Habitat. The projects create an experience that should mirror work experience in the actual industry while providing a service to the community.

“[We try to choose] projects that have some meat to the engineering, and we’ve been trying to ramp that up to make the project more challenging. Then we find a faculty member that suits the project,” Freeland said.

One of the reasons Freeland cited for changing the format of the program included the weight on faculty who are not paid for overseeing projects but instead take them on as overload. At the moment, four faculty members coordinate approximately 70 students.

“The program has always been of interest to students, but the demands on faculty are so high that it really takes someone dedicated to service,” Freeland said.

Last year, the EPICS program asked for more faculty volunteers to facilitate the program, but according to Freeland the response was minimal because faculty are already overextended in teaching and research. Also, the engineering department has taken on several other service projects, and it is beneficial for the department to focus its energies on fewer programs. Freeland is in support of the structural changes that will be made to the program, but he says the way students earn credit for their work will change since now the courses will be offered through the Center for Social Concerns instead of the College of Engineering.

“The spirit of EPICS will live on, even it the name does not,” Freeland said.

In ending the relationship with Purdue that is part of the EPICS framework, however, the program will lose certain national sponsorship benefits that were secured for the service work, like software donated by Microsoft among others. Nevertheless, engineering students should be able to pursue service projects in the future, and Freeland doesn’t see the Notre Dame initiatives, some of which have existed for three or four years, coming quickly to an end.

To learn more about the programs begun through EPICS, visit the Notre Dame web site at http://epics.cse.nd.edu.