Project-Based Learning for Engineers Goes Global

Projects for Underserved Communities (PUC) is an innovative new course at the Cockrell School of Engineering that places project-based learning on a global scale for students.

In 2009 two Cockrell School professors — strongly committed to educating the next generation of engineers by providing skills to address real-world needs — joined forces to create a unique educational and practical experience for students.

Janet Ellzey, vice provost for international programs and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and James O'Connor, C.T. Wells Professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, created Projects for Underserved Communities (PUC), a two-course sequence in project development and project design to help students develop engineering, project and leadership skills while providing much-needed services to underserved communities around the world.

PUC is the first for-degree credit course of its kind at the Cockrell School of Engineering. The class is unique in that students actually conduct engineering/construction projects from start to finish, and as in real life, they're also required to raise money for their projects. The chance to impact communities in a foreign country adds an exciting component to the experience. PUC is open to engineering students who are sophomores, juniors, early seniors and first-year Ph.D. canditates in all engineering majors.

In fall 2009, 25 students participated in the first PUC course that focused on project selection and planning. They chose water projects in Santa Cruz, Peru and Patriensa, Ghana. To ensure robust guidance, Professors Ellzey and O'Connor created an advisory board comprised of outside professionals and university faculty to assist in screening projects and mentoring project teams. Each team led reconnaissance trips over school breaks to meet community leaders, gather data and learn more about communities and locally available resources. In the spring 2010, students worked on project design and prepared for the summer component, when they would travel overseas and implement their projects.

Fundraising has been the biggest challenge, but the teams secured support from the university and private sectors, collected donations and hosted a benefit concert. Students sought out donations from family, friends and industry funding, airline miles, time and technical expertise. Two companies became important partners: Pluspetrol provided on-site advice and support in Peru, and Afren funded the Ghana project. Steve Crowell, president of Pluspetrol, and Shahid Ullah, chief operating officer of Afren, are members of the Cockrell School's Engineering Advisory Board and provided critical support for both PUC projects.

"This was truly a team effort," says Ellzey. "Professor Dorie Gilbert from the UT School of Social Work introduced us to a community in Ghana and mentored students throughout their project assessment and implementation. Two local professional engineers, Marty Rumbaugh and Jim Etherton, and UT graduate student, David Gatchell, accompanied students on trips and provided oversight during implementation. They were all critical to the success of this first year."

Impact Here and Abroad

In June 2010, the two teams completed new water distribution systems at two resource-constrained schools in Patriensa, Ghana and Santa Cruz, Peru, and the impact was huge — sanitation improved for more than 1,175 children, who now have access to clean drinking water. For team members, the biggest impact was on their own lives.

"I've decided to work in sustainable project development at some point in my career," says Andrew Klotz, Team Ghana's communications manager. "The people in Ghana were so appreciative. I'll remember their profoundly grateful approach toward others for the rest of my life."

As project manager for the Peru team, Margaret Cook describes the highlight of PUC as "just about everything." She adds, "Real life situations made the class more interesting and valuable than other classes. Sometimes we forget that engineering involves more humanity than simply a design on paper."

In March of this year, PUC received a 2010 International Award for Innovative Practices in Higher Education from the American Council on Education's University Design Consortium, confirming the value and quality of the PUC program. Meanwhile, a new group of students eagerly prepares for the next PUC sequence beginning in August 2010.

Ellzey concludes, "The first year of PUC has been very successful. I look forward to learning from our experiences and giving more students the opportunity to work with communities around the world."

Links to PUC Student Blogs

Peru Project Blog

Ghana Project Blog

Learn about other ways the Cockrell School is supporting International Engineering Education.

For more information and to apply to PUC, visit the PUC Web site. Enrollment is limited.

Please consider making a donation to the PUC program to ensure the success of the 2010-11 program. Your donation will change lives, both here and abroad.

Projects for Underserved Communities: Student Blogs

Read more about these projects from the students' perspectives.