Problem-Solving isn’t Just for Engineers: Discovering My Academic Identity through Service-Learning

By Katie Wiseheart (Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability, Class of 2015)

Applying to the University of Illinois, I was interested in Engineering. The thought of being able to problem solve and use my knowledge to address the world’s challenges was what appealed most to me. I did not, however, find myself to be strongly suited in the math required to be an Engineering student at Illinois. It soon became clear that this path was not meant for me. As an undeclared student, a friend of mine recommended that I look into the LINC courses. She explained that this was an interdisciplinary course open to all students, and that it would both allow me to explore my interests and feed my hunger for problem solving that I thought was restricted to Engineers.

Following this conversation, I rushed home to my dormitory to begin registering for ENG 315: Learning in Community. The issue here was that I had no idea which section/project to choose. I was torn between working with a local organization, where I could see firsthand the impact I might have, and an international organization where I would have the satisfaction of spreading university knowledge across geographical and cultural borders. Eventually, I chose to work on a project in Uganda with Children’s Outreach and Vocational Education (COVE) Alliance and eagerly awaited my first day of class.

As the semester started, it became known to our class that the COVE school was in need of a system to improve the quality of water on their campus. Children were regularly becoming ill due to water borne diseases and the organization was in need of a solution.  Our class would work together to develop a project to address this need. The course was a new experience for me and my fellow classmates because of the unique structure and multi-disciplinary style. In the classroom, it was made clear that everyone’s input was valued and that each of us possessed skills which were valuable to this project. It didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable in this setting and begin to flourish.

Growing up, I was inherently taught to value math and science. I always saw these as the “hard” subjects cut out for “smart” people. I was challenged with the fact that I was no longer in the engineering field and felt that my academic identity had been lost.  Soon, my work with my teammates and my project managers showed me that I too possessed valuable skills. My interest in writing helped the team write our proposal, my inquisitive nature helped my teammates and I to dig deeper in our analysis of the issues at hand, and my optimism helped to boost the team morale during low points. Through these experiences, I evolved to be a more confident student who appreciated the skills I possess. Additionally, the context of the project helped me to uncover my interest in sustainable development and I consequently chose a major in Environmental Sustainability.

By the end of the semester, our class, in conjunction with our COVE partner, decided to implement plastic biosand water filters on the COVE campus. At the time, this technology was relatively new, but our research showed that with a great level of community involvement, an implementation could be successful. As the semester came to a close, the weeks of preparation began and soon I was in route to Uganda.

On the trip, our team was able to assist the school in implementing 22 biosand filters on their campus, thus providing clean water to the over 250 students and staff on the COVE campus. We hosted a workshop for community members where participants ranged from teachers and students from other schools to government officials. The workshop discussed the importance of clean water, the causes and effects of water borne diseases and ways to clean water.  Furthermore, the students and staff learned the aforementioned material along with information regarding how biosand filters work, how to construct them and how to conduct necessary cleaning and maintenance. By then end of our trip, the entire system was in the hands of the COVE staff who were trained to manage the system entirely on their own. Before we left, the staff from the health clinic on campus noted to us that they already noticed a decline in the amount of children falling ill during school.

The next semester, I began my work as a project manager for the COVE Alliance Uganda section.  As a manager, I worked to guide the students and serve as the primary liaison between the partner and my class. Being a project manager was the most challenging yet rewarding experience I have ever had. With this position, I was required to work with a partner to teach two classes every week using the core LINC curriculum and apply it to our project. In class, we had to facilitate the meaningful conversations and activities that would help the students to progress through the stages of a project: from initiation to closure. Out of class, we had to serve as a constant resource for our students to help guide their research, keep their morale high and grade their assignments. I learned how to: be an effective facilitator, motivate students, manage my time, and balance the input from a variety of stakeholders (myself, my Co-Project Manager, the COVE Board, and the LINC staff.)  As the semester progressed, I continued to witness firsthand the growth of myself, my students and the project we created.

After two semesters as a project manager, I became a LINC intern. In this role, I served as an additional resource to students and project managers and helped evaluate project deliverables. As an intern, I was able to use my experiences in the LINC program to help guide LINC students through their projects, working to ensure products of the upmost quality for our community partners.

Moreover, the LINC program has helped me to recognize the benefit of the skills I possess and apply them in a context that suits my interests. My experiences in the program have transformed me from a lost sophomore into a grounded, responsible and well-rounded senior.  As I graduate from the University of Illinois, I am confident that my experiences in this program have prepared me for what’s to come! 

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