Students in Tom Talleys senior design course in electrical engineering at Texas
A&M are required to develop a project design. This usually involves building a working
prototype. Among the kinds of projects Talley suggests students might undertake are some
that qualify as volunteer service projects in the community. Students are not paid for
such work; in fact, they may have to pay for needed materials themselves. Since these
projects are undertaken as a service to others, it is expected that every effort will be
made to bring them to successful completion. Since this might involve more work and time
(perhaps even beyond the current semester) than other possible projects, what reasons
might a team have for selecting a volunteer service project?
This is a situation that presents opportunities for what we have call good works
(Chapter 5). Despite the common complaint that todays youth is a
"me-generation," student volunteer work is on the rise. Many campuses have an
office that provides students with a list of volunteer opportunities in the community.
However, for most students, volunteer work bears no special relation to their academic
work or professional preparation. Tom Talleys class provides ways of making the
One project in particular illustrates the value of such opportunities. Undecided about
what project to undertake, one team decided to work with the Brazos Valley Rehabilitation
Center after Tom Talley showed them a letter from teacher Ellen Wood that indicated some
of the centers needs. The specific task the team undertook was to design and build
an Auditory Visual Tracker (AVIT). An AVIT is used to evaluate the training of visual
skills in children with disabilities. On learning about the project, Ellen Wood commented
that the center had wanted an AVIT for years but had been unable to afford purchasing one,
adding: "This is a tremendous boost in working with children with disabilities ages
0-3. The opportunity of obtaining the AVIT is a dream come true."
The team successfully completed the project, but only by continuing to work on it after
the end of the semester. Another design team did a follow-up project for the center during
the next semester. In addition to helping the Brazos Center, team members themselves seem
to have gained much from the experience. Team member Robert Siller commented, "We
liked that it was a project that was going to be genuinely used. It wasnt going to
just end up in a closet. Its actually helping someone." Team member Myron
Moodie added, "When we presented the AVIT to the center we got to see some of the
kids use it. It was worth it watching the way children like it."
Tom Talley suggests that a key was team members meeting some of the children: "The
students met the children who were going to be using the project and fell in love. They
worked day and night. Money couldnt buy you that kind of effort." He concludes,
"They clearly went above and beyond--thats Aggie spirit. Someone is going to
get some fine engineers."
Most engineers do not have the opportunity to interact in this way with those who
ultimately benefit from their work. For those who benefit, their benefactors are
anonymous. Nevertheless, knowing that ones work benefits others one will never meet
can be quite satisfying, even without special recognition.
Tom Talley by no means stands alone in encouraging engineering students to undertake
volunteer work related to their academic work. The Worcester Polytechnical Institute and
Case Western Reserve University, for example, have well established programs to encourage
this. Dwayne Breger, Civil and Environmental Engineer at Lafayette College, has organized
a team of students from engineering, biology, and environmental science to design a
project that would provide renewable energy sources for the college. Steven Silliman,
Civil Engineer at Notre Dame University, involves students in service projects in Latin
America. No doubt there are many other equally impressive examples.