22, No. 12, Jan. 23, 2003
by Bill Wiegand
new course called Learning in Community (LINC) teams students
with nonprofit organizations to develop service projects.
Bruce Litchfield, a professor of agricultural engineering,
is the director of LINC.
course LINCs students with nonprofits
(217) 333-2894; email@example.com
You could tell at the start that this course would be different.
To open the first lecture session, Professor Bruce Litchfield recruited
about eight students to come up front for a teamwork demonstration.
He arranged them in a circle, then asked them to toss a tennis ball
around in a way that included each person. He then added more tennis
balls to the mix, then a small rubber ball, then a rubber ducky, then
one of those long skinny rubber chickens used in comedy bits.
Just when some students were thinking this was all just for laughs,
Litchfield stopped the group juggling and asked the class to reflect
on the elements of teamwork involved. He then brought the volunteers
back up front to do it again, but the last item this time was a chair.
The first person slid it across the circle to the second, and there
it stayed, while everything else kept flying.
Lessons learned: Teamwork requires focus, communication, organization,
practice, adjusting to personalities. It also requires the ability to
deal with unclear goals and unforeseen obstacles, like the chair.
Further reflections on teamwork, in this lecture session and the next,
would come from short clips from films such as "Toy Story 2,"
"Ocean’s Eleven" and "Chicken Run." Litchfield,
an innovative and award-winning teacher, doesn’t lecture much
in his lectures.
Students in this new, project-based, service-learning course –
called Learning in Community (LINC) – would need these lessons
and others during the coming fall semester. Each had signed up for a
team that would work with one of nine nonprofit organizations, among
them several local schools, an African-American women’s group,
a community development project in East St. Louis, and – for international
flavor – an environmental project in Bangladesh (no travel required).
On each team, they would tackle a semesterlong project, working with
students from various majors, and with staff members or volunteers from
the nonprofit, or "client."
And unlike many in other classes, the students would not be given a
specific problem to solve. They would have to work out for themselves,
in consultation with the client, what their project would be for the
semester, the scope of it, and how they would accomplish it. They would
also have to learn how to work as a team, dealing with communication
issues, personality conflicts, and budget and time constraints. At the
end, they would have to accept there would be no right or wrong answer,
no "nice round number when you’re done," said Ann Finnegan,
LINC’s program manager.
In other words, it’s a lot like projects in the real world, said
Litchfield, a professor of agricultural engineering and the director
of LINC. "It’s messy, and we expect it to be messy."
LINC is modeled in significant ways on a program called EPICS (Engineering
Projects in Community Service), which began at Purdue University seven
years ago and has since spread to at least 10 other schools. The idea
of doing something like it at Illinois began in the spring of 2001 when
Jon Dolle, then a senior majoring in general engineering and philosophy,
brought it up with Litchfield.
Dolle had had an interest in community service since work trips to Appalachia
during his high school years in Cincinnati. At Illinois, he had found
Alternative Spring Break, a student organization that sponsors spring
break service trips. He eventually became interested in service-learning,
courses that combine education with community service, and sought to
encourage more of it at Illinois.
As Litchfield, Dolle and others developed what would become LINC, they
decided to make it campuswide and interdisciplinary, unlike EPICS, which
was based in engineering. With funding from the Office of the Provost,
the course debuted as a pilot program a year ago with 20-some students
and a single client, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, a nonprofit
builder of low-income housing.
Three project teams were established, dealing with energy-efficient
home design, the group’s modest storage warehouse and its public
Among the students in the pilot course was Matt Joost, a civil and environmental
engineering major from Swansea, Ill., and a junior at the time. He now
thinks the course was the best he has had so far, although he had serious
doubts at the beginning. He thought he wasn’t qualified and it
wasn’t what he had expected. Also, "before the class, I thought
that I despised group work," he said, associating it only with
But Joost, working on the warehouse team, would learn he liked working
in a group, at least this kind of group, and would find the course suited
to the way he liked to learn. "Basically, we were learning the
things we needed to know to help our project run smoothly and then we
used what we learned right away. This plays into my learning style because
I need to learn something and then use it and make it my own for me
to retain it," he said.
That’s something that’s central to the idea of service-learning,
Litchfield said. "The thinking behind service-learning is you can
learn from someone else by being in partnership with them. You listen
to these people who have needs and understand their situation, empathize
with them, and then realize ‘Hey, I’ve got to learn something
here in order to help them,’ " he said. "It really gets
back to authentic –meaning real, not cooked-up – project-based
or problem-based learning. And we’ve known for a long time that
problem-based learning is effective because it’s motivational."
According to Dolle, now a graduate student in education and a LINC teaching
assistant, service-learning can also get students thinking about "issues
that may seem very dull in a traditional, theoretical sense –
but are very, very engaging and vibrant when you actually are implementing
Knowing the work might make a difference can also be motivational, Joost
said. "The course submerges you in your project in such a way that
you really desire to do the work, knowing that it will benefit others
in some way."
A similar perspective came from one of Joost’s teammates, Sourobh
Raychaudhuri, an electrical engineering major from Greece, N.Y., who
graduated in August. "Usually, you are in a class to better yourself;
in this case, you were working for someone else. Every one in the group
wanted to do a good job because they knew Habitat was depending on them,"
Holly Nye, Habitat’s volunteer warehouse manager and a graduate
student in the Medical Scholars Program, saw that motivation demonstrated
through the numerous Saturdays the warehouse team spent on the project.
They not only traveled to Springfield, Ill., to research another group’s
operation, but they helped clean out and organize the existing space,
which was important, Nye said.
"You really don’t know what the challenges are until you
physically get into a space and try to find something, or try to move
something from place A to place B," she said. In the process, "the
class was able to come up with ideas on how to do things that would
never have occurred to me."
Among the team’s accomplishments was a rack the students designed
for holding landscaping tools and plans for organizing both the storage
space and the storage trailers used on construction sites. They also
found and adapted software for use in tracking inventory and produced
extensive research on what would be needed in a larger warehouse facility.
The skills in teamwork, leadership, project management and other intangibles
that students might learn through LINC are skills highly valued by employers,
Finnegan noted. In fact, she said, Purdue reports that some recruiters
now look for students who have been through EPICS, the program upon
which LINC is partially based.
But she, Dolle and Litchfield also hope the course will influence students
to look more broadly at how they can use their education, beyond just
in their jobs. "A course like this provides people an opportunity
to see unique ways in which the skills they develop in the classroom
can be connected to a wider range of settings," Dolle said.
"When students graduate from here, they have tremendous potential
to do good, and I’m not sure they always think about it in that
way," Litchfield said. "They have the chance to contribute
to the global society."