Promoting Social Justice Through Service Learning

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.


As of the end of spring 2015, over 200 Farmingdale State College Architecture and Construction Management students have served the community by producing existing condition construction drawings of nonprofits’ buildings, including veterans’ facilities and senior centers, on Long Island. Students bond with their community partners while perfecting their skills. Their drawings have enabled the local veterans’ facilities to receive over $500K in government funding for much needed renovation of facilities, and also aided local government in space planning and emergency preparedness for super storm Sandy and other storms. The goal of this article is to provide an update on the service learning project and its outcomes in a construction design course at Farmingdale State College.


Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame, but greatness, because greatness is determined by service.” The benefit of service learning is that it joins the goals of learning and service into one applied learning project. Service learning is defined by Bringle & Hatcher (1995) as:

A course-based, credit-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 content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility.

From 2009 to 2015, 208 architectural engineering technology and construction management engineering technology students at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York, have completed a service learning project in a sophomore course titled Construction Design. An additional 22 freshman Graphics I students manually drafted existing condition drawings of one veterans’ facility. The initial projects—preparing existing condition drawings for twelve veterans’ facilities and senior centers—were the focus of the author’s presentation “Benefits of Embedding Service Learning Projects into a Construction Design Course,” delivered at the 2010 Faculty Resource Network (FRN) National Symposium, “Engaging Students in the Community and the World,” and published in the FRN’s online publication of the same title (LoPiccolo, 2010). An update to this project was presented as part of the panel breakout session “Social Justice Across Farmingdale State College: In the Classroom, Via Co-Curricular Efforts, and through Community Outreach” at the Faculty Resource Network 2015 National Symposium, “Advancing Social Justice From Classroom to Community,” held in Washington D.C., November 20-21, 2015. The purpose of this article is to give a synopsis of this presentation.


Farmingdale State College, State University of New York, is a college of applied technology serving a majority commuter student population. Many students in the architectural engineering technology and construction management engineering technology programs are from diverse backgrounds and hold part- or full-time jobs; some support families. With their hectic schedules, they have little time to engage in co-curricular activities outside of class time. Embedding a service learning project into a course provides multiple expected and unexpected benefits for students that will be discussed here.

Like all projects, the Construction Design service learning project started with an idea. The goal was to incorporate a service learning activity into the Construction Design course the first year that I was to teach it, spring 2009. Construction Design is a sophomore course that is now required for both of our programs—architectural engineering technology and construction management engineering technology. Prior to this year, the course was three credits and was held once a week for four hours. Starting in spring 2016, Construction Design will be four credits and held for five hours once a week. The current catalog description for Construction Design (ARC 282) states:

Construction Design is a technology-based design studio emphasizing a methodological approach to the assembly of the building’s envelope, materials and systems. The integration of building code requirements, life safety, accessibility, building energy systems, structure, construction, and materials are central to effectively achieving design intent. Knowledge from Materials and Method of Construction I and II, Energy in Buildings and Graphics are applied to specific drawing assignments. A residential Type V construction and a commercial Type II or Type III construction building project will be advanced, resulting in a set of construction documents. Note: This course includes a required laboratory designed to provide extra time for the studio experience.

Prior to joining Farmingdale State College, I was an architect and community development project supervisor working for the Town of Islip, New York. While I was examining possible ideas for this project and matching them to the course learning objectives, a serendipitous event occurred. United Stated Congressman Steve Israel and Town of Islip Councilman Gene Parrington contacted our department seeking help with the production of existing condition construction drawings for 12 local veterans’ facilities that had fallen into disrepair and needed funding for renovations. Their goal was to apply for renovation grant funding from the House of Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. The student-prepared drawings aided in the award of $500K of government funding to the veterans facilities for building repairs.

From 2009 to 2015, 208 Construction Design students (8 different sections) have completed this service learning project for 7 community partners. 51 buildings were visited, sketched, measured, photographed; and for each building existing condition drawings were made with energy efficient retrofit details using AutoCAD Architecture or Revit computer drafting programs. In addition, one section of 22 Graphics I (CON 111) students prepared existing condition drawings for one veterans’ facility, bringing the total number of students who have completed a service learning project in my courses as of fall 2015 to 230, and raising the number of buildings measured—for seven different community partners—to 52.

The service learning community partners that we have worked with on this project do not have any usable drawings for their facilities. They need drawings for a variety of reasons, including space planning, emergency preparedness, and to initiate renovation and building addition projects with architects. In this service learning project, student teams serve local non-profits by visiting their facilities, discussing the building with the site management staff, measuring and photographing each building (inside and out), and returning to the computer lab to digitally draft the building into construction drawings (plans, sections, elevations, and details.). Students are also required to research energy efficient construction, analyze their building’s exterior walls and roof, and design energy efficient renovation details. The Construction Design service learning project is the first of its kind in the School of Engineering Technology at Farmingdale State College, and is performed to date without extra funding or support.

Initial Goals

The initial goals of integrating a service learning project into Construction Design were to achieve the following:

  1. Update the second project in this course, which involves students, in teams of two, drawing a simple commercial building as an active learning team project that gives them the opportunity to practice their newly learned skills. They visit, sketch, measure, and draw a building in the community, during class time, and research and design possible energy-saving retrofit construction details. These are marketable skills.
  2. Provide a nonprofit community partner with existing condition drawings of their buildings and offer them possible ideas to increase the buildings’ energy efficiency. Many nonprofits, such as local governmental agencies, do not have existing condition drawings of their older facilities.
  3. Provide our students with the opportunity to interact with a “real world” client in a professional manner.
  4. Hold class discussions on the students’ projects and encourage reflection on their learning and community engagement activities. Reflection is essential for experiencing the full benefits of service learning. Per the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Civic Engagement Value Rubric, a service learning class is:

A course-based educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity and reflect on the experience in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility. (n.d.)

  1. Fulfill the Mission of the College by increasing student engagement through connecting with community partners and completing real-world work outside of the classroom.

Additional Beneficial Outcomes

The following are additional benefits that result from these projects:

  1. They provide collaborative learning activities to increase student-to-student and student-to-faculty interaction. This has been shown to increase student retention. Students work closely together in teams on their own assigned buildings to fulfill the sequence of parts needed to complete the project: site visit, sketches, measurements, photographs, generation of energy efficient retrofit detail ideas, draft drawing and submissions, and final drawings and submissions.
  2. Student leadership and time management skills are improved through such exercises. Students are put in teams of two for this project. One student in each team is the team leader in the field for drawing, measuring, and photographing their assigned building, and the other student is the team leader in the classroom for drawing production. Students have draft and final drawing submissions with set deadlines, similar to normal construction project drawing deadlines.
  3. Students produce drawings and plans that they can use to start their architecture/construction management resumes, portfolios, and graduate school applications.
  4. These Construction Design service learning projects bring students public recognition. So far, projects have been featured in two newspaper articles and on the College website, and two municipalities have awarded citations to students and a faculty member for their work on these projects. This publicity has reinforced the students’ pride in working on a project that has aided their community.
  5. These projects inspire others. The author has been able to share her experience through presentations that inspire other faculty members, in various fields of study, to consider and embark on service learning activities in their courses and programs.

Service Learning Project Facilitator Preliminaries

The initiation of a service learning project encompasses a number of items to consider. Although the following list is specific to the Construction Design service learning project discussed here, the intention is to provide a guideline for any prospective facilitator’s consideration.

A. Examine your course, institution, and accreditation outcomes statements and explore the possible service learning activities that you can incorporate.

B. Brainstorm ideas for your service learning project and reach out to potential community partners to discuss ideas and receive their feedback.

C. Select the project that meets the needs of your institution, department, course, students, community partner, and your intended goals for the project.

D. Question whether your project goals can be met by your students in the time frame given. Redesign and re-evaluation may be needed to fit the time frame.

E. Examine to what extent students can perform service learning project tasks without encroaching on the work of professionals in your field.

F. Discuss your service learning idea with your department and institution and seek approval if warranted.

G. Seek guidance from your campus administration and support services regarding legal waivers that the students and/or community partner must sign to proceed with your project.

H. Visit service learning site locations, inspect where students will be working, and speak with various members of the community partner’s group.

I. Obtain and keep a list of all contacts and distribute this information to everyone involved in your project.

J. Prepare all off-campus travel request paperwork and submit by necessary deadlines.

K. Prepare and facilitate an in-class meeting with your students prior to the service learning project start date and distribute paperwork and assignments.

L. Visit each student group at their service learning project locations and answer questions and provide guidance on their project.

M. Facilitate draft work and final production, as well as discussion and reflection when students return to the classroom.

N. Deliver project outcomes to the community partner at a campus reception or at their headquarters. Encourage student involvement in the celebration of the conclusion of their project.

O. Document the learning outcomes from each project to inform future project planning.

Reflection and Conclusion

The Construction Design Existing Condition Construction Drawings Service Learning Team Project changed an existing classroom-based drafting project to a real project for a real client. Students examined, sketched, measured, photographed, and drafted their client’s structure, in addition to researching, analyzing, and designing how they would improve its exterior construction for energy efficiency. Students of all backgrounds worked in teams during class time to help a community partner who needed their skills. Everyone involved in this project has benefited from the new relationships and work it has produced.


AAC&U. (n.d.). Civic engagement rubric. Association of American Colleges & Universities. Retrieved from

Bringle, R., & Hatcher, J. (1995). A service learning curriculum for faculty. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2, 112-122.

LoPiccolo, O. (2010). Benefits of embedding service learning projects into a construction design course. Engaging Students in the Community and the World: A National Symposium, Fall 2010. Faculty Resource Network. Retrieved from

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community