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Analysis of Student Service-Learning Reflections for the Assessment of Transferable-Skills Development

Preprint, 2010


Status: Published

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Abstract: The civil and environmental engineering (CEE) programs at the University of Vermont (UVM) incorporate systems thinking and a systems approach to sustainable engineering problem solving. A systems approach considers long-term social, environmental and economic factors within the context of the engineering problem solution and encompasses sustainable engineering solutions. Our goal is to prepare students to become leaders in their chosen field who can anticipate co-products associated with forecasted solutions. As a way of practicing the systems approach, we include service-learning projects in many of our undergraduate engineering courses, culminating with the senior capstone design course. We use a variety of formative and summative assessment methods to gage student understanding and attitudes including student surveys, focus groups, assessment of student projects, and student reflections. Student reflections from two courses -Modeling Environmental and Transportation Systems (31 juniors) and Senior Design Project (30 seniors) are compared. Of these, 25 students were common to both courses. The focus of the systems modeling service-learning project involved mentoring home-schooled children (11-14 yrs old) to solve problems of mobility, using the fun and inspiration of biomimicry. Students were required to invent innovative methods to move people or goods that improve associated constraints (i.e., minimize congestion, reduce pollution, increase safety), or reduce the need for transportation altogether. The capstone design project required a comprehensive engineering design involving two or more CEE sub-disciplines. Both service-learning projects were intended to enhance students' academic learning experience, attain civic engagement and reinforce transferable skills (written and oral communication, teamwork, leadership and mentoring skills). The student course reflections were not guided; yet they provided valuable data to assess commonalities and differences in student attitudes toward their service-learning projects, specifically, the development of transferable skills. In the spirit of service-learning pedagogy, we divide the contents of students' written reflections into three categories - academic enhancement, civic engagement and personal growth skills. The commonalities focused mostly on civic engagement. Differences are observed primarily in academic enhancement and personal growth categories. Students working on the biomimicry design project reflected on personal growth (e.g. leadership skills, mentoring, creativity, organizational skills, communication to nontechnical audience), but did not credit it with academic enhancement. In contrast, the senior design reflections concentrated on academics, specifically, students appreciated the enhancement of technical skills as a part of their engineering experience.



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Joshua Bongard - Department of Computer Science, Associate Professor

Bongard's work focuses on understanding the general nature of cognition, regardless of whether it is found in humans, animals or robots. This unique approach focuses on the role that morphology and evolution plays in cognition. Addressing these questions has taken him into the fields of biology, psychology, engineering and computer science.


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    Josh Bongard, Victor Zykov, Hod Lipson. Resilient Machines Through
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    Science 314, 1118 (2006). [Journal Page]
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    Joey Anetsberger and Josh Bongard. Robots can ground crowd-proposed symbols by forming theories of group mind. Proceedings of the Artificial Life Conference 2016. [Link to Proceedings]
  • Stacks Image 525375
    Sam Kriegman, Nick Cheney, and Josh Bongard. How morphological development can guide evolution. arXiv 2017. [arXiv]


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Chris Danforth -Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Flint Professor of Mathematical, Natural, and Technical Sciences

Danforth is an applied mathematician interested in modeling a variety of physical, biological, and social phenomenon. He has applied principles of chaos theory to improve weather forecasts as a member of the Mathematics and Climate Research Network, and developed a real-time remote sensor of global happiness using messages from Twitter: the Hedonometer. Danforth co-runs the Computational Story Lab with Peter Dodds, and helps run UVM's reading group on complexity.

  • Stacks Image 525319
    Peter Sheridan Dodds , Kameron Decker Harris, Isabel M. Kloumann, Catherine A. Bliss, Christopher M. Danforth. Temporal Patterns of Happiness and Information in a Global Social Network: Hedonometrics and Twitter. PLoS ONE 2011. [Journal Page].
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    Lewis Mitchell , Morgan R. Frank, Kameron Decker Harris, Peter Sheridan Dodds, Christopher M. Danforth. The Geography of Happiness: Connecting Twitter Sentiment and Expression, Demographics, and Objective Characteristics of Place. PLoS ONE 2013. [Journal Page].
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    Andrew G Reece and Christopher M Danforth. Instagram photos reveal predictive markers of depression. EPJ Data Science 2017. [Journal Page].


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Laurent Hébert-Dufresne - Assistant Professor, Computer Science

Laurent studies the interaction of structure and dynamics. His research involves network theory, statistical physics and nonlinear dynamics along with their applications in epidemiology, ecology, biology, and sociology. Recent projects include comparing complex networks of different nature, the coevolution of human behavior and infectious diseases, understanding the role of forest shape in determining stability of tropical forests, as well as the impact of echo chambers in political discussions.

  • Stacks Image 525331
    Laurent Hébert‐Dufresne Adam F. A. Pellegrini Uttam Bhat Sidney Redner Stephen W. Pacala Andrew M. Berdahl. Edge fires drive the shape and stability of tropical forests. Ecology Letters 2018. [Journal Page]
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    Samuel V. Scarpino, Antoine Allard, Laurent Hébert-Dufresne. The effect of a prudent adaptive behaviour on disease transmission. Nature Physics 2016. [Journal Page]
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    Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, Joshua A. Grochow, Antoine Allard. Multi-scale structure and topological anomaly detection via a new network statistic: The onion decomposition. Nature Scientific Reports 2016. [Journal Page]


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Paul Hines - School of Engineering, Associate Professor

Hines' work broadly focuses on finding ways to make electric energy more reliable, more affordable, with less environmental impact. Particular topics of interest include understanding the mechanisms by which small problems in the power grid become large blackouts, identifying and mitigating the stresses caused by large amounts of electric vehicle charging, and quantifying the impact of high penetrations of wind/solar on electricity systems.

  • Stacks Image 525350
    Paul D. H. Hines, Ian Dobson, Pooya Rezaei. Cascading Power Outages Propagate Locally in an Influence Graph That is Not the Actual Grid Topology. IEEE Transactions on Power Systems ( Volume: 32, Issue: 2, March 2017 ). [Journal Page]
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    Mert Korkali, Jason G. Veneman, Brian F. Tivnan, James P. Bagrow & Paul D. H. Hines. Reducing Cascading Failure Risk by Increasing Infrastructure Network Interdependence. Scientific Reports volume 7, Article number: 44499 (2017. [Journal Page]
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    Pooya Rezaei, Paul D. H. Hines, Margaret J. Eppstein. Estimating Cascading Failure Risk With Random Chemistry. IEEE Transactions on Power Systems ( Volume: 30, Issue: 5, Sept. 2015 ). [Journal Page]


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James Bagrow - Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics

Bagrow's interests include: Complex Networks (community detection, social modeling and human dynamics, statistical phenomena, graph similarity and isomorphism), Statistical Physics (non-equilibrium methods, phase transitions, percolation, interacting particle systems, spin glasses), and Optimization(glassy techniques such as simulated/quantum annealing, (non-gradient) minimization of noisy objective functions).

  • Stacks Image 525390
    Y.-Y. Ahn, J. P. Bagrow and S. Lehmann. Link communities reveal multiscale complexity in networks. Nature, 466: 761-764 (2010). [Journal Page].
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    M. R. Frank, J. R. Williams, L. Mitchell, J. P. Bagrow, P. S. Dodds, C. M. Danforth. Constructing a taxonomy of fine-grained human movement and activity motifs through social media. In preparation. (2015). [Journal Page].
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    J. P. Bagrow and L. Mitchell. The quoter model: a paradigmatic model of the social flow of written information. To appear, Chaos (2018). [Journal Page].