The class work doesn’t sound like the norm for an engineering class: students were required to do volunteer hours, and their class projects centered around helping local non-profits.

But giving students a deeper connection to the community is exactly the point of Humanitarian Engineering 310, a new course at Oregon State University that wrapped up last week.

According to Kendra Sharp, who taught the class, it is part of the university’s Humanitarian Engineering minor, but it also helps students of all fields meet core requirements. She said the minor was introduced in January 2015 as a way to try to open engineering up to a more diverse array of students.

“More of our students are coming in wanting to have a career that makes an impact,” she said. Surveys conducted by the engineering department back this up, she said. Students rank having a positive impact over other priorities like getting a job at a prestigious firm.

Sharp said that in her class this term, the students worked with local organizations on problem-solving projects, many of which involved building a physical prototype.

For example, one group worked with the Corvallis Bicycle Collective on a project aimed at helping ease burdens on the organization’s staff — to do this they made educational fliers and a bike drive train educational model to allow more people visiting the organization’s shop to figure out how to help themselves.

Another group worked with the collective on a project to develop an organizational system for a cluttered storage room. Other groups worked with high school math classes in Albany, local small-scale farmers trying to improve the efficiency of washing produce and the Corvallis Family Table, which serves meals for low-income families in South Corvallis.

Through this process they get to learn and apply the design cycle, Sharp said.

“The students have been getting out into the community, which is special,” she said.

She added that they get feedback from their community partners through the process, which they can use to adapt their ideas to the real world problems of their partners. The groups did final presentations about their projects in their final class meeting Friday morning, which was attended by their community partners.

Adam Bartlett, a junior who worked with the bicycle collective on the project that made educational materials, said the class boosts the students’ interactions with the community.

“I didn’t really have a connection to the community because I’m here for school,” he said.

In addition to building a working drive train system on a movable platform, Bartlett’s group made and had printed fliers for the bicycle collective.

Ryan Tai, a junior in sociology and education who was in Bartlett’s group, agreed the class connected him more to the community.

“I feel like as students we fall into that stereotypical ivory tower where we’re focusing on our education. Classes like this should be required,” Tai said.

Tai said many students learn better through applying the class materials on projects than just hearing lectures.

“I think the university should put more funds and resources into this type of class, because a lot of students could benefit from this type of learning,” he said.

Dan Espinoza, a junior in mechanical engineering who worked with Tai and Bartlett, said beyond the class material, he’d gained communications skills from the class.

“(Communication skill) is pretty important when you’re an engineer, or at least so I’ve been told,” Espinoza said.

Anthony Rimel can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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