EPICS Celebrates 20 Years

Purdue Engineering's pioneering service-learning program reaches students and communities around the world.

In 1995, when Purdue professors Leah Jamieson and Ed Coyle launched Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, they targeted students in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering - 40 of whom took part. Two decades later, to say the program has grown is an understatement. It has captivated more than 11,000 Purdue students across many disciplines, plus thousands more at 23 universities globally and 61 middle and high schools in the U.S.

The driving force behind the EPICS program? In a word, vision.

The EPICS program shows students that engineering - ultimately - is about people and communities. Participating in an EPICS project enables young engineers to grasp why it is they do what they do."

The John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering and
Ransburg Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

"Our vision today is remarkably consistent with what Ed and Leah saw 20 years ago," says Bill Oakes, associate professor of engineering education and director of EPICS. "When I look at all the things we've done, it's clear that they set us off in the right direction. Our overall mission is the same; how it plays out has evolved. It's been an incredible ride."

Envisioning the "AND"

Jamieson, now dean of Purdue's College of Engineering, and Coyle, director of the Arbutus Center for the Integration of Research and Education at Georgia Tech, both envisioned an engineering design program operating in a service-learning context, with students solving technology-based problems for nonprofit organizations. That core philosophy - of addressing needs in education and communities - remains unchanged.

"Preparing students for success in the global economy is becoming more challenging to teach in the traditional classroom," Oakes says. "EPICS provides an environment where students can develop those skills. It puts learning in the context of real-world needs."

Through the program, student teams partner with community organizations on projects like developing an iPad app that helps children with severe autism communicate or designing a more energy-efficient home for Habitat for Humanity. The process allows students to experience the "and," says EPICS co-director Carla Zoltowski.

"Students get authentic engineering experience, and they are able to make a difference in the community," she says. "It helps connect what they are learning in the classroom to real projects and people."

Bill Muzzillo

Expanding at Purdue and Beyond

That is a key reason why EPICS grew rapidly beyond the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering to attract students from across the College of Engineering and around the University. Today, the program at Purdue draws from about 70 different majors. And though it initially targeted upperclassmen, EPICS is now also open to first-year students and sophomores. The EPICS learning community helps first-year engineering students transition to Purdue and explore career paths.

EPICS also quickly became a national model for marrying learning and engagement. The national EPICS program, created in 1999 and headquartered at Purdue, includes students at 18 universities in the U.S. and five universities in other countries.

"We've been willing to share and adapt our curriculum to meet the needs of different institutions," Oakes says. "The fact that this program came from an institution as highly regarded as Purdue gave it credibility."

The expansion did not stop with other universities. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has sponsored EPICS projects around the world, and in 2006 Purdue brought the program to a younger demographic as well.

"Our K-12 program is exploding," Oakes says. "It's an affordable, diverse and friendly way for younger students to discover engineering."

Funding for Growth

None of this growth would have been possible without support from inside and outside the University. EPICS does not charge its community partners any fees - which means the program relies on other funding sources to offset the cost of transportation, supplies and materials needed for participating students and faculty.

"What we do in EPICS comes with an increased cost, compared to a traditional course," Oakes says. "Both Purdue and the College of Engineering have been generous in their financial support, but we rely on donors to help us fund the cost of student projects and to engage with other universities and K-12 schools."

That includes corporate support from partners like the General Motors Foundation, which has donated annually. Bill Muzzillo (BSIE '81, MSIE '82), a GM manufacturing manager and university relations team coordinator for Purdue, cites project management, cross-functional teamwork, leadership and customer focus as just a few of the relevant skills that graduates of EPICS bring to the workplace.

"GM's vision and values state that we translate breakthrough technologies into products and services people love," Muzzillo says. "EPICS allows students to learn how to do that kind of engineering in a framework that delivers benefits to the community."

Cheryl and Brian Bosma

For Brian (BSIDE '81) and Cheryl (BA Communication '81) Bosma, who have established an endowment for EPICS, the program aligns with their personal commitment to community involvement. Brian serves as the founding director of Bosma Enterprises. The business is Indiana's only provider of programs and services focused solely on people who are blind or visually impaired and is the state's largest employer of people with vision loss.

In addition, the Bosmas' son, Chris (BSMDE '14), participated in EPICS projects involving potable water in Haiti and solar power in Colombia during his time at Purdue.

"The EPICS experience encouraged Chris to apply engineering principles learned in the classroom to real-world problems experienced around the globe," Brian says.

Cheryl finds the inclusion of students from many disciplines appealing. "The collaboration of engineering students with students from management and the humanities reflects how problems are solved in the real world," she says. "EPICS prepared our son in a tremendous way, and we want to share that same creative real-world experience with other students."

Connecting with New Audiences

EPICS directors Bill Oakes and Carla Zoltowski - with support from GM, the Bosmas and dozens of others - have grand goals for the next 20 years. They envision establishing K-12 programs in all 50 states, increasing the number of global partners and projects, collaborating with organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, and, of course, continuing to grow Purdue's program.

"EPICS addresses numerous strategic goals for the College of Engineering," Oakes says. "It enables us to increase diversity, participate in multidisciplinary programs, engage with global communities and equip our students with the attributes of the Engineer of 2020."

It also is appealing to a new generation of students, who seek out relevant coursework and projects that make a difference.

"Students today are very engaged," Zoltowski says. "It's important for them to find ways to connect many aspects of their lives - especially in engineering, where those connections may not be as clear."

GM's Bill Muzzillo takes that a step further, stressing the important connections EPICS makes between engineers and communities.

"Engineering has had a reputation with the general public of being technology- or machine-focused rather than people-oriented," he says. "What EPICS does is create a way for people to see what engineering can do for the community, in ways that are meaningful every day."

To help support EPICS or other student initiatives in the College of Engineering, contact Rebecca Fry, director of development, at 765-494-0023 or RLFry@prf.org.