Feature Stories

First-Year Engineering Students Engage in Community Design Process

A pioneering course in USF’s College of Engineering is paying dividends for first-year students and community partners alike.

As students hone their creative engineering design competencies, they are engaging with a variety of community partners, including the Girl Scouts, Mort Elementary School, the Tampa Bay Housing Authority, and Turner/Bartels K-8 School. Approximately 500 students per semester participate in this Community Engaged Learning course (CEL) as a part of the USF Fundamentals High Impact Practice (HIP) curriculum.

Dr. Jonathan Gaines, mechanical engineering instructor and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Engineering Educators, leads this team effort.


“Both parties get something out of the relationship,” Gaines says. “The community partners get a much-needed design and the students get real-life experience in listening and analyzing, designing and problem solving, which mirrors the process professional engineers utilize in their careers. In the middle and elementary school partners, the students get early exposure to STEM.” 

The engineering students choose from one of six projects at the beginning of the semester and work on that project until the end of the semester. They spend half of their time in the design phase and the other half in the fabrication phase. Students interact with partners during the semester through design review processes, incorporating community stakeholders’ feedback.

Among the projects, middle and elementary school students helped design a payload for a small kite capable of carrying a camera for remote sensing. For another project, younger students worked with the fuel cell groups from the engineering class to design a toy that could be used to measure fuel cell efficiency. Educational materials also were developed for both projects.

USF students also designed a web application and related educational materials to teach Girl Scouts about app development.

“This course has secured a phenomenal beginning and would not be possible without a fascinating teaching team, an exceptional leader and a group of dedicated community partners,” Sanjukta Bhanja, Associate Dean of Academics, says. “The course is taught with extremely tight synchronization between sections in the first version. Next semester, further creativity is expected when the team will explore new ideas, stakeholders and pedagogy.” 

Gaines participated in the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) Service-Learning Academy training on Community Engaged Learning (CEL). In 2017, he used funds from an OCEP mini-grant for a pilot program to incorporate the hands-on elements of the course.

“I’m impressed with the speed at which this change was implemented – from classroom learning to service learning,” Robert Bishop, College of Engineering Dean, says. “This signifies a major cultural shift to introduce freshmen into the design process early in their academic career, whereas previously students weren’t exposed to this until their junior or senior year.”

The course has an impressive teaching team that includes Oscar Rios (Mechanical Engineering), Schinnel Small (Computer Science and Engineering), Alejandro Castellanos and Ralph Fehr (Electrical Engineering), Kemi Akintewe (Medical Engineering), Dan Simpkins (Civil Engineering), Bill Lee (Chemical Engineering), and Walter Silva (Industrial Engineering).