EPICS program to expand at Purdue University in Indianapolis, partner with more Indy organizations, businesses to demonstrate power of experiential learning

Purdue EPICS, a project-based and student-led course, has eight community partners within greater Indianapolis.
Students in a group
Purdue's EPICS team that partners with The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis brought a prototype to the museum as part of its project. 

For the last four and a half years, Pooja Anil has worked with the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI) to develop an affordable, personalized magnifier device for students. The device provides a zoomed-in live feed of what students read or write with adjustable lighting and color filters, reducing stress on their eyes and “will hopefully even out the playing field in education,” said Anil, a senior studying mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

Anil is a student in Purdue’s EPICS program, an engineering-based design course centered around hands-on learning, professional development and community engagement.

ISBVI is one of EPICS’ eight community partners within greater Indianapolis, including The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Jovial Family Farm, The Jackson Center For Conducive Education, Indiana School for the Deaf, Indy Edge Beep Baseball, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and Camp Riley. Additional community partnerships in Indianapolis are already in the making and more are expected to develop as students at Purdue University in Indianapolis — Purdue’s first comprehensive urban campus — join the program.

EPICS also works with Indianapolis businesses and corporations to support student learning through mentoring and sponsorship.

Student working in lab
Purdue EPICS has multiple projects with Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI), one of eight community partners within greater Indianapolis.

“Corporations and businesses help mentor students as they progress through their projects,” said Jorge Martinez, lead outreach program manager for EPICS.

Professionals often advise students during twice-a-semester design reviews.

"Because this is an opportunity to participate in producing better professionals and recruit them later, it is not uncommon for corporations and businesses to also contribute toward the cost of materials and supplies needed by the students to fabricate and test prototypes and final deliverables,” Martinez said.

Because EPICS is a project-based and student-led course, students like Anil participate in coursework that involves conducting community partner site visits, ongoing collaboration with their community partner and professional advisors and planning, designing and executing their deliverable. In other words, these students learn through practice, not theory — a hallmark of the program.

EPICS began working with ISBVI to develop affordable magnifier devices in 2014. Since Anil started, the team has developed three iterations of the magnifier.

“It’s a very complex project,” she said. “Every version gets better than the last, but the process never ends. Even though our project’s been going on for 10 years, we’ve continued to make progress and change with the times.”

As the ISBVI project manager, Anil also oversees two other ISBVI projects: LEAP, a braille translation device for educators, and Tuner, an audio-based tuner for band students.

“The projects EPICS students are working on are something real and tangible that they plan to deliver to organizations,” said Haley Cutler, senior program manager for EPICS. “They're going through the experience of being on a team, working with people who are different than them or have different skills or approaches and working through conflict. The experiential part shapes how we do everything with the program.”

Purdue founded EPICS in 1995 with 40 students. Now, the program averages more than 1,200 students each year. During the 2022 and 2023 academic year, EPICS at Purdue partnered with 68 community organizations and delivered more than 30 projects. More than 50 colleges and universities have adopted EPICS courses and programs globally.

“EPICS is one of the many experiential learning opportunities for our Purdue University in Indianapolis students. It’s part and parcel of our STEM education mission, and it allows students to put those engineering and technology disciplines into real-life practice,” said David Umulis, senior vice provost for Purdue University in Indianapolis.

One of the newest EPICS partnerships is with Jovial Family Farm in Broad Ripple, founded by Drs. Bobbie and Brian Jellison. They started working with EPICS in 2022 to design an accessible, multi-generational urban garden to serve as a community hub for food education and distribution. The Jellison’s goal is to have a garden hydroponics system that’s whimsical in appearance and meets ADA compliance.

“This is perfect for EPICS students because they can look into existing methods, materials or systems and find ways to innovate those to fit this space,” said Nathan Shoaf, senior urban agriculture coordinator for EPICS. “It creates a unique collaborative environment for the project partner and students to learn from each other and march in step to meet the needs of their community.”

Experiential learning opportunities like EPICS enable students to gain practical design experience while providing the Indianapolis community with much-needed technical capabilities and resources.

“Since these projects are created with input from the local ecosystem – the Indianapolis community, organizations, K-12 outreach, etc. – they provide a mutually beneficial outcome, both for the students from the experience and for central Indiana from the impact those students generate,” said Umulis.

According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, 92% of hiring and talent professionals say that professional skills — like communication and leadership — are equally as important as discipline-related or technical skills in careers. Although EPICS hones students’ discipline-related skills through the design process, collaborating with community partners to solve real-world problems develops necessary professional skills for success in the workforce, which sets the program apart from traditional classroom contexts.

“EPICS provides exposure to what the workforce is really like. Students take on various roles, which translates well into professional careers because whatever their skill set is, they will manage projects or staff. It requires wearing many different hats,” Shoaf said. “I am impressed every semester with the growth that these students make. They have very high standards, and they work very hard. I admire all of them.”

Anil is graduating in December, and though that means her time with EPICS is over, she credits much of her academic success, including internships with EV automakers, Tesla and Rivian, to her EPICS experience.

“I might be a mechanical engineer, but EPICS has taught me electrical and computer science skills and how to communicate with a non-technical audience,” she said. "Sometimes, knowing how to communicate is more important than the design itself.”