“INVOLVE ME AND I LEARN”: THE PROMISE OF ACTION RESEARCH AND COMMUNITY SERVICE LEARNING FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION

J. Lievens

University of Leuven (BELGIUM)
As social, civic, corporate, industrial, educational and environmental standards and customs are evolving at an ever-increasing pace, so the claims made to curricula of 21st-century engineering education are becoming, at once, more diverse, urgent and complex. The challenges that institutions of higher engineering education face include, but are not limited to: enabling transitions from traditional teaching based on knowledge transfer and “canned engineering” exemplars to problem-based and competency-oriented modes of teaching and learning stimulating creativity and critical thinking; from entrenched conceptions of the engineer as a technological specialist towards educating “T-shaped engineers”, who are also proficient in communication, teamwork and project management; from immediate-return presuppositions to a (global and local) community-oriented focus on sustainability and social equity. In short: if the catchword of today’s age is “disruption”, then how can Engineering Education prepare its graduates for recognizing and welcoming the new as it emerges, and harnessing it as a socially and environmentally benevolent force?

One part of the answer is that Engineering Education is to look beyond the confines of the institution. What the stock-taking MIT report “The global state of the art in engineering education” (2018) identifies as one of the main trends in leading engineering curricula around the world is “a move towards socially-relevant and outward-facing engineering curricula” (p.iii). It is, at least partly, by reaching out towards the (local and global) communities in which they are embedded that institutions of Engineering Education will be able to develop an agenda for new learning.

What this paper explores is the extent to which the inherently outward-oriented frameworks of Action Research and Community Service Learning (CSL) open up pathways towards successfully and comprehensively coping with the complex and diverse demands on contemporary engineering curricula. Action Research refers to a “family” of approaches that share a dedication to improving immediate, real-world situations by well-planned actions based on a rigorous practice of inquiry (mixed method data gathering, analysis, and reflection). Typical of this systems-oriented, post-positivist approach is that the researcher is not a detached observer (in the dominant objectivist, hypothetico-deductive tradition) but an openly biased participant-collaborator, who actively - but always critically and reflectively - strives towards enhancing the real-world conditions of a “community”, however defined. CSL can, therefore, be understood to belong to this family of approaches.

On the basis of an in-depth analysis of leading CSL programs in engineering education (EPICS, ECOS, Think Cycle, TechBridgeWorld, Humanitarian Engineering, ETHOS and SERO), this paper investigates whether Action Research and Community Service Learning can serve as a framework for designing inquiry-based and project-based learning approaches and for aligning the engineering curriculum with professional and social realities, including the complex and ethically laden relationship of the engineer as actionable agent to power holders. The paper will identify opportunities, challenges and good practices and thus provide a stepping stone for institutions of higher education considering the integration of Action Research and CSL in their educational program.