Delaine to transform service-learning education with NSF CAREER funding

Posted: May 11, 2022
David Delaine
Assistant Professor David Delaine (left) will use NSF CAREER funding to improve service-learning education.

Service-learning offers engineering students rich experiential education opportunities through tackling real-life problems in their community. But Engineering Education Assistant Professor David Delaine believes service-learning can improve, for both students and the communities they serve.

With funding from a recent National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, Delaine aims to substantially help improve the education of future engineers by preparing them to address societal challenges in meaningful ways. His project, “Enabling Transformational Service-Learning in Engineering through Critically Reflexive Practice” will receive $597,223 over five years.

The CAREER award is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) most prestigious award in recognition of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of both. Delaine’s project is funded by NSF’s Engineering Education program.

“The bulk of the undergraduate engineering curriculum is focused on technical preparation, and students often leave college without understanding and addressing the needs of the people who will be impacted by their technical solutions,” explained Delaine. “By focusing on service-learning, this project will help students learn to be socially responsible engineering professionals while positively impacting local communities.”

This CAREER research will investigate the instructors of service-learning courses in which students work with communities outside of their university to help resolve a local challenge. When not performed carefully, these courses can have unintentional learning outcomes.

“It can teach students to dismiss community perspectives and treat communities as laboratories rather than as collections of people with unique social, cultural, and historical backgrounds,” said Delaine. To avoid those harmful effects, his team will investigate how instructors develop the skills, attitudes, and knowledge they need to design and implement transformational service-learning.

To pursue transformational service-learning, it’s essential that educators acknowledge the substantial role that race, power, and privilege play within this pedagogy, he added. To support their understanding of the role of these factors in service-learning, Delaine’s project involves first developing educators’ critical reflexivity: the process by which an educator creates an internal dialog and evaluates their own positionality to articulate its impact on educational processes and outcomes.

The investigation will begin with interviews, and findings will be used to engage educators from a community of practice that focuses on reflection and action. Results will inform the development, assessment, and validation of a short course and guidebook to share this new knowledge while also refining this project’s findings.

“Along with dissemination through publications and conferences, this approach enables widespread impact of these outcomes by closely engaging potential adopters, thus increasing the likelihood that they will pursue transformational service-learning,” said Delaine.

By partnering with large networks of engineering and service-learning educators both nationally and internationally, research findings will be used to promote a paradigm shift in engineering service-leaning towards impactful community-oriented approaches.

“Ultimately, our goal is to develop civic-minded engineering citizens who equitably engage with local communities and are prepared for resolving complex societal challenges,” he said.

Delaine joined The Ohio State University in 2016 and leads the Inclusive Community-based Learning (iCBL) Lab. Prior to Ohio State, he was a postdoctoral Fulbright Scholar at the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He earned his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Northeastern University in Boston, and his PhD in electrical engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |