Reaching Out To Students - Partnership with Motorola will help excite a new generation about engineering

Author: written by Becky Brown
Reaching Out To Students
With a significant financial gift from a long-time corporate supporter, Purdue’s innovative EPICS program soon will be extending its reach into Chicago-area high schools — exposing a new generation of students to engineering while providing affordable solutions to problems in local communities.

The Motorola Foundation’s $150,000 gift to EPICS, which stands for Engineering Projects in Community Service, will expand the program’s ability to bring together teams of students to design, build and deploy real systems to solve engineering-based problems in the areas of education, human services, accessibility and the environment.

“The current generation of young people is one of the most engaged ever, but there are very few community service-learning opportunities linked to engineering,” says William Oakes, director of EPICS and associate professor of engineering education. “EPICS provides that link. It gets students excited about engineering by getting them engaged in projects in their own communities. And students who develop an interest in engineering early are more likely to stay in the field.”

EPICS got its start in West Lafayette in 1995. Purdue students have worked with more than 50 different community partners, creating electronic volunteer management systems for not-for-profit agencies, designing energy-efficient homes for Habitat for Humanity, creating devices to improve mobility for adults and children with disabilities, and building a rain garden on campus — just to name a few recent projects. This semester, more than 370 students (an all-time record) are enrolled in EPICS. They represent more than 50 majors, including about 100 students from outside the field of engineering.

The success of this unique program quickly attracted other institutions. Today, EPICS is active at 21 additional universities in the United States and abroad, as well as at 34 U.S. high schools — and the Motorola Foundation’s contribution will extend its reach even further. As one of the first to fund EPICS’ expansion into high schools, the global communications giant has directed a substantial portion of its most recent donation to establishing the program in the Chicago area, site of Motorola’s headquarters. This will allow Purdue to create an EPICS “hub” in the nation’s third most populous city and enable Motorola employees to be mentors for local high school teachers and students.

“We can’t turn teachers into engineers. They need support and mentoring, and that’s where Motorola employees can be our strategic assets,” Oakes says. “It’s an effective and efficient way to engage working engineers in the schools. Students and teachers are working on real-world projects and need consultants to help them solve technical issues. That’s what engineers do every day. It’s a great fit.”

EPICS’ representatives will hold workshops for Chicago-area teachers and administrators next spring and hope to select approximately 10 high school partners initially. They’ll conduct teacher training during the summer and roll out the program for the 2011-12 academic year.

Oakes describes the initiative as a “win” for all of the parties involved and says he’s grateful to the Motorola Foundation and all of EPICS’ supporters.

“Especially in these unusually tight budget times, we rely on these partnerships to keep EPICS alive and thriving,” he says. “Motorola’s gift will allow us to expand Purdue’s program, get a new generation of young people excited about engineering and knock out issues in local communities. It’s truly a win-win-win situation.”