Benefits of Embedding Service-Learning Projects into a Construction Design Course

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.


Farmingdale State College is an institution of applied technology within the State University of New York. Teaching and learning across the campus is structured to progressively expand students’ knowledge and prepare them for work in their discipline through exercises that reflect real-world problems. Off campus, local non-profit organizations such as veterans and senior citizen centers offer assistance to a growing population in need, yet their budgets are being reduced due to the recent economic downturn. This article is a synopsis of a breakout presentation that examined the benefits for both the students and their paired community participants through the incorporation of service-learning into a college course.


Students love to get out in the field through group site visits, class trips, and individual research projects where they collect information from various sources. Service-learning goes further than any of these activities. It embeds the student, individually and/or in teams, into a credit-bearing learning environment where they have a real community client and a real project and where they can see, and earn appreciation for, their class work (Bringle and Hatcher, 1996). As Jacoby (1996) notes, “reflection and reciprocity are key concepts of service-learning.”

Buildings managed by local senior citizen centers and veterans organizations such as the American Legion, American Disabled Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars are in need of energy efficient upgrades to reduce their heating and cooling costs. Before seeking government grants, and contracting design professionals for the proposed work, these organizations seek assistance with the production of as-built/existing condition drawings and energy-reducing renovation ideas. They welcome help from students to get their projects off the ground, where they might otherwise be delayed due to lack of funds. Students in our programs who are learning construction drawing methods and energy-saving details need real world practice for these newly learned techniques. In addition, the vast majority of students in this course have not yet had the opportunity to gain field experience and hence have never “measured-up” a building. The needs of these groups–the veterans/seniors and the students–were successfully united though embedding a service-learning project into their Construction Design course in the spring semesters of 2009 and 2010.

The goal of this article is to provide a background to the first service-learning projects undertaken by the Department of Architecture and Construction Management at SUNY Farmingdale State College. We will explore the following initial questions to aide those considering the integration of this experiential type of education into their course: How do you go about starting a service-learning project? What are the benefits to all involved–the student, the community partner, and the faculty member?

Brief Background

In the fall of 2008 our department chair, Dr Amit Bandyopadhyay, introduced service-learning integration to the department and it immediately became a department goal. The department’s programs, Architectural Engineering Technology and Construction Management Engineering Technology, are well suited for the incorporation of service-learning into the curriculum because of the emphasis on experiential education, problem solving, and working in groups (Seifer & Vaughn 2002)

Project 1 Veterans Facilities

While we were in the early stages of researching possible community partners and matching courses and educational tasks, our first service-learning project came serendipitously. In March of 2009 Congressman Steve Israel and Councilman Gene Parrington of the Town of Islip asked our department for student assistance with the initial stages of characterizing work needed to improve the twelve veteran’s facilities in the Second Congressional District within the Town of Islip. This information was needed as background for an application for funding that Congressman Israel and Councilman Parrington were making to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction & Veterans Affairs to revitalize these facilities. During an initial meeting, after discussion and some brainstorming, we agreed to help immediately. Our goal was to integrate this service-learning project into three courses where the student work could be used consecutively to achieve the goal. The first course, Construction Design, would produce existing condition drawings; the second course, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Energy Systems, would use these drawings to determine energy saving solutions based on an energy analysis; and the third course, Estimating, would then provide a conceptual estimate for the cost for this work. After the student work was completed, each veteran’s facility was responsible to obtain an actual estimate for repairs from local vendors before submitting an official proposal for federal grant funds.

Project 2: Senior Citizen Centers

Prior to joining Farmingdale State College in the fall of 2008, I was the architect and community development project supervisor in the Town of Islip, New York for ten years. Through my relationship with the town, I contacted the commissioner of human services, Betty Lorenz and arranged a service-learning partnership for the spring 2010 Construction Design course. Many of the town’s five senior citizen centers lack certificates of compliance and have not been renovated in years. The overall goal of our project was to measure, draw and provide energy saving detail proposals for these buildings to the town. The drawings could then be used to apply for certificates of compliance or as a basis for structural change proposals from design professionals. For this project, conceptual cost estimates were not required, so all of the student work was performed in the Construction Design course.

How do you go about starting a service-learning project?

We will focus on the work performed in the Construction Design course. It is a four hour per week, three credit course, taught in two sections in the spring semester with approximately thirty-four to fifty sophomore through senior students. Traditionally this course encompasses the design and construction drawing of a single family residential building prepared individually and a small scale commercial building prepared in teams of two students. For the past two years, the second project of this course has been changed to a service-learning existing condition drawing team project.

As with the majority of course-based service projects, there is considerable groundwork needed prior to introducing the project to students. Some professors may see this is an obstacle to incorporating this type of project into their course(s). According to Gray et al. (1999), “at the institutional level, the most serious obstacle [to expanding and sustaining service programs] is faculty resistance to service-learning. Faculty are reluctant to invest the extra time that teaching service-learning courses entails and many are skeptical of the educational value of service-learning.” However faculty buy-in and encouragement is vital to the success of community-based educational work. The following is a brief recap of the initial faculty work for the service-learning projects conducted in the Construction Design course:

  1. Match the student and community partner needs with the course and program objectives, for example: teamwork, deadlines, time available in class for project and discussion.
  2. Maintain a dialogue with the community partner. They should feel ownership of the project so that they have reasonable expectations for the project outcomes (Bielefeldt, 2009).
  3. Verify the extent of work permitted by an unlicensed individual (student) by the local municipal building department and the state department of education. At this time in New York state, existing condition drawings prepared for a certificate of compliance are not required to be prepared by a licensed design professional. In addition, this project does not encompass work by the professor who is a licensed design professional.
  4. Obtain a facility list, contact each location where possible and arrange a site meeting.
  5. Visit and photograph each location and arrange student visit times for two course sections during class time.
  6. Where addresses were incorrect, source correct locations prior to the students’ site visits.
  7. Research if there are any existing condition drawings available per location with each commander/town staff and the municipal building records office.
  8. Notify appropriate college departments and personnel of purpose and dates students will be off campus.
  9. Prepare and deliver lecture(s) tailored to the service-learning project goals.
  10. Introduce the project to the students including: a clearly defined explanation of the project goals; community partner needs; samples of other existing condition drawing sets; timetable; and site visit information.
  11. Confirm site visits for two course sections during class time in the same week with the community partner, and verify who their representative will be on site during student visit.
  12. Have a pre-site meeting with students; discuss measurement guidelines, site visit equipment (proper attire, large sketch book, camera and drawing equipment), contact information, and notify students that attendance will be taken during the faculty visit while they are on site.
  13. On the day of each class site visit: travel to each location and meet student teams; answer questions; review their sketches and measurements; and take attendance.

What are the benefits to all involved – the student, and the community partner and the faculty?

Benefits to the Students

Upon surveying the students in both years of the Construction Design course, the following benefits have been found:

  1. For the majority of students, it is their first active learning work experience. In 2009, only one student out of of forty-five (2.2%) had measured and drawn an existing building prior to completing the service-learning project. In 2010, the result was one out of thirty-four students (3%). Additionally, the experience provided students with a real project for their portfolios for future job interviews.
  2. Sense of achievement for using their newly learned skills (energy efficiency renovation and construction drawing techniques). A survey showed that the majority of students concluded that the service-learning project was of value to their course experience (64% of students strongly agreed and 34% agreed).
  3. Many students found that aiding members of the community benefited them academically and civically. Students were able to link history with actual people. One student who worked on the veterans’ facilitates project has since entered the Peace Corps and is working in Sibinal, San Marcos, Guatemala.
  4. Job teamwork experience. This offered opportunities for collaboration and peer review between teams.

Benefits to the Veteran and Senior Citizen Community Groups

  1. The community partners were excited to see long awaited projects being initiated and they enjoyed the interaction with students.
  2. Community partners were able to acquire existing condition drawings for their buildings and proceed to obtain certificates of compliance.
  3. Students provided different solutions for their energy efficiency needs at no expense.
  4. The service-learning projects initiated work being performed now, which would not have otherwise occurred due to lack of funds.
  5. The student work for the veterans’ facilities aided the 12 local veterans’ facilities in being awarded $500,000 in grant funding through Congressman Israel and Councilman Parrington’s application to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction & Veterans Affairs.

Benefits to the Faculty

  1. Personally I benefitted from the satisfaction of knowing that I implemented service-learning projects which were innovative for the department, and which were successful for my students and their community partners alike.
  2. Professionally I benefitted by sharing a real work experience that also helped the students develop their leadership and civic skills.
  3. Since the presentation that preceded this article, I have integrated a service-learning project into a freshman Graphics I course in the Fall of 2010.
  4. The work in the projects gave me a new focus for research and publication.


Both of the aforementioned projects were a success for the students, community partners and faculty. The goals set forth were achieved within set time frames. The students’ teamwork provided a needed jump-start for work at the veteran and senior facilities, and the students used their coursework in a real world setting where they could see achievable end results while earning experience with client interaction and real-world problem solving. The students reflected on what they had learned before, during and after the project, and about how their technical work helped their community partner. In their paper, Markus et al. (1993) note that “Students in service-learning sections of the course were significantly more likely than those in the traditional discussion sections to report that they had performed up to their potential in the course, had learned to apply principles from the course to new situations, and had developed a greater awareness of societal problems. Classroom learning and course grades also increased significantly as a result of students’ participation in course-relevant community service.”

Future Ideas for Service-Learning in the Construction Design Course and Beyond

Ideas for future discussion include: whether service-learning should be officially added to the curriculum; if it should be made a requirement for graduation from departmental programs; if the project scope should change to include energy audits; and if there is a steady stream of potential community nonprofits in need to meet the yearly need for this type of project.


The integration of a service-learning projects into a college course such as Construction Design is mutually beneficial for the students and the community group involved. The benefits to both the students and the community partners would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by any other method. The goal is to continue service-learning within Construction Design and possibly expand it into other courses where the departmental program objectives and the community partner needs are similar.


Bielefeldt, A., Paterson, K., & Swan, C. (2009). Measuring the impacts of project-based service-learning, AC 2009-1972. American Society for Engineering Education.

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

Gray, M. J., Ondaatje, E. H., Fricker, R. D., Geschwind, S., Goldman, C. A., Kaganoff, T., Robyn, A., Sundt, M., Vogelgesang, L., & Klein, S. P. (1999). Combining service and learning in higher education: evaluation of the learn and serve America, higher education program. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Jacoby, B. (1996) Service-learning in higher education: concepts and practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Markus, G. B., Howard, J. P. F., & King, D. C. (1993). Notes: integrating community service and classroom instruction enhances learning: results from an experiment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 15: 410-419. doi: 10.3102/01623737015004410.

Seifer, S. D, & Vaughn, R. L. (2002). Partners in caring and community: Service-learning in nursing education. Journal of Nursing Education, 41(10), 437-9.

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World