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Two CESL Faculty Fellows Promote Service Learning in MIE Classes

Ana Muriel

Hari Balasubramanian

Two faculty members in the UMass Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department who were named faculty fellows by the campus Civic Engagement and Service Learning (CESL) unit have spent the past year adding community service activities to their classes. The CESL faculty fellows from MIE are Ana Muriel and Hari Balasubramanian. The CESL fellowships add service learning and community service to Ana Muriel’s MIE 422 course, entitled “Statistical Quality Control and Improvement.” UMass CESL promotes learning for lifelong, engaged citizenship, partnering with communities on and off campus to work collectively for a more just society.

“Our engagement with CESL as faculty fellows has focused on introducing service-learning projects into MIE 422,” said Muriel. “Last spring semester the students worked with various organizations, including the Food Bank of Western Mass, United Way of Hampshire County, the City of Holyoke, Holyoke Health Center, PVTA, Storz Company, Pratt & Whitney, and some departments on campus. I will offer the course again in the spring '15.”

Last February (2014), fourteen UMass individuals, including Muriel and Balasubramanian, were chosen by CESL to receive faculty fellowships. According to Carol Soules, associate director of CESL, the group represents 10 departments developing nine civic engagement or service-learning courses, integrating classroom learning with community based learning.

As Muriel said about her class, statistical quality control and improvement techniques have wide application because they aim to improve the design, processing, and delivery of products and services. Students studying this material know generally how to apply formulas of whatever complexity when the variables in a problem given for solution are well specified. And students appear to understand the basic concepts.

“However, most students have considerable difficulty translating real world, often loosely specified problems into a form that lets them identify the solution,” Muriel and Balasubramanian wrote. “It is thus imperative for us to change our way of instruction and focus on giving students the tools they will value most: modeling and solving real problems using the theories learned. Collaboration with service organizations will provide meaningful situations for the students to model and solve, at the same time as bringing the material to life and sparking their interest.”

The service-learning activity in the statistical quality control class is built around problems or improvement areas identified by community partners, which are assigned to teams of four to five students. For instance, statistical quality control tools are useful in the school system to track student and teacher performance. Local governments can benefit from the statistical analysis of budget spending over the years, and from using quality control tools to alert them when the budget is out of the normal range. Private businesses can use design-of-experiments expertise to improve the settings of a process so as to decrease defects or increase output.

“As such,” said Muriel and Balasubramanian, “the service-learning projects should provide a meaningful and rewarding experience to both students and organizations involved.”

These service-learning projects also foster the educational goals of the “Statistical Quality Control and Improvement” course: to master the basic concepts and techniques of quality control and improvement, both at the process control and design levels; to understand the challenges managers face in their implementation; to gain the ability to confidently analyze data using statistical techniques and draw pertinent conclusions to improve processes and products; and to collaborate in groups, be able to tackle non-structured real problems, and communicate the analysis and recommended solutions.

The group of CESL faculty fellows meets monthly to discuss service-learning pedagogy and to work collaboratively on course development.

The CESL supports the UMass mission in two ways: 

  1. by engaging students in a curriculum that includes significant public work, UMass CESL deepens our students' education and prepares them for lives of active and engaged citizenship;
  2. by deploying the creative energy of students and faculty to address community needs and aspirations in our region, our state, and beyond, we provide resources that improve people's lives. (November 2014)