Service-Based Learning as a Pathway to Undergraduate Engineering

Overall, students develop personal goals of pursuing specific disciplines at colleges and universities and participating in specific fields in the workforce if they believe that they can ultimately be successful in doing so and doing so will serve as a means for them to achieve desirable ends.  Thus, as Lent, Brown, and Hackett (2002) conclude, “women[ and] members of racial-ethnic minority groups … may fail to develop interests in particular career options because they may not have been exposed to opportunities and experiences that would lead them to feel efficacious about their abilities to pursue these careers or optimistic about the outcomes they might receive (p. 272).

In the 2008 book Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Committee on Public Understanding of Engineering Messages found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “teens universally rate interesting work as the most important factor in choosing a career” but also that “[m]aking a difference was second most important among teens” identifying as African American or Hispanic.  However, the profession of “engineer[ing] was either the least understood or was tied with scientist for that distinction” among all teens, although “[b]oys … claimed greater familiarity with engineering than girls” (p. 68).  Consequently, “many students found it difficult to connect engineering and helping others” (p. 60).

Consider the following definition of service-based learning: 

[C]redit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course contenta broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 222; emphasis added)

The three emphasized benefits of service-based learning appear to be in sync with the three social cognitive factors that form the basis of Social Cognitive Career Theory.  Explained, “further understanding of course content” can increase self-efficacy, “a broader appreciation of the discipline” can elucidate outcome expectations, and “an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” can cultivate personal goals.  Furthermore, “[s]tudents performing service-learning are not doing something for the community, but rather with the community” (Lima & Oakes, 2014, p. 3).  Empirically, service-based learning resulted in increased student motivation and engagement, as well as the development of professional practice skills including, but not limited to, collaboration and communication (Mills & Treagust, 2003; Prince & Felder, 2006).  Similarly, Thomas (2000) found that service-based learning resulted in increased conceptual understanding, metacognitive skills, and attitudes toward learning.

Therefore, to increase the participation of minorities, who have historically been underrepresented, in both the STEM disciplines at colleges and universities and the STEM fields in the workforce, they must be afforded the opportunity to immerse themselves in an engineering design experience that produces positive change in the lives of those in their communities.  More specifically, junior and senior high school curricula must begin to adopt service-based learning as a precollege pathway into science and engineering.


Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 221-239.

Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (2002). Social cognitive career theory. In D. Brown (Ed.), Career choice and development (pp. 255-311). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lima M., & Oakes, W. C. (2014). Service-learning: Engineering in your community. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, J. E., & Treagust, D. F. (2003). Engineering education – Is problem-based or project-based learning the answer? Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 3(2), 2-16.

National Academy of Engineering (2008). Changing the conversation: Messages for improving public understanding of engineering. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Prince, M. J., & Felder, R. M. (2006). Inductive teaching and learning methods: Definitions, comparisons, and research bases. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(2), 123-138.

Thomas, J. W. (2000, March). A review of research on project-based learning.

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