Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

What Counts as Outcomes? Community Perspectives of an Engineering Partnership

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

What Counts as Outcomes? Community Perspectives of an Engineering Partnership

Article excerpt

   Sitting next to a fork in the dirt road in a remote    area of Nicaragua, I suddenly had that feeling    sink in--I was really in the middle of "nowhere."    There were a few huts in view, but there was no    electricity or means of communication--no    phone lines or even a two-way radio to town. Our    truck had just broken down and the local parish    priest hitched a ride back to town to buy a new    part and just told our group to hang tight and    wait until he returned. As we sat there, a community    resident approached us. I responded to a few    of his questions about where we were from and    what we were doing. I struggled with my somewhat    limited Spanish, but 1 did grasp his last    statement ... something to the effect of "you    killed my family," which he muttered as he    turned and walked away. 

In those few words, this gentleman captured much of the history of the relationship between the U.S. and Nicaragua as experienced by families in the mountains of Waslala, Nicaragua. After that trip in 2002, one of my friends and I created Water for Waslala (WfW), a non-governmental organization working to ensure access to clean drinking water. Since 2004, we have worked in partnership with Villanova University's College of Engineering (CoE), which has sent over 200 engineering students and faculty members to visit Waslala. The Director of Engineering Service for the CoE identified this as a "successful partnership" (J. Ermilio, personal communication, February 23, 2012).

This study was part of a larger project that explored stakeholders' perspectives about this global service-learning (GSL) partnership and its accompanying projects (Reynolds, Forthcoming), with a particular focus on community voices because they have received limited attention in service-learning (SL) research (Stoecker & Tryon, 2009). This study incorporated the voices of community organization representatives and community residents to explore this question: From the community's perspectives, what are the outcomes in Waslala of the projects and partnership with the CoE? The findings described here demonstrate how an intentional focus on the community's perspectives leads to a broader conceptualization of outcomes in GSL and highlights more nuanced views of how communities perceive and understand outcomes in partnerships. The community's perspectives and participation in analyzing the findings drew attention to the importance of participation to achieve socially just GSL partnerships.

After discussing the general problems related to international development work that global service-learning efforts seek to avoid and a relevant literature review, I examine the outcomes described by the community participants that go far beyond the tangible project outcomes identified by the university participants. Next, I show how a participatory analysis process demonstrated how categorizing outcomes as positive or negative represents an oversimplification of how communities perceive and understand outcomes in GSL partnerships. Finally, I explore how Fraser's framework of social justice is a useful tool to analyze GSL partnerships.

The Problem

Engineering-for-development (1) initiatives are increasing dramatically (Nieusma & Riley, 2010). Many universities now work in development projects abroad and manage their own programs (for example, Engineering Programs in Community Service (2)), and there are now numerous engineering organizations doing development work (e.g., Engineers without Borders (3), Engineers for a Sustainable World (4), and Engineering World Health (5)). These university programs and engineering-for-development organizations directly involve engineering students, young professionals, and faculty members in international development initiatives and projects on the ground in countries around the world. The history of engineering-for-development, similar to international development more broadly, contains many examples of failed and unsustainable projects (Engineers without Borders, 2009). …

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