Applied Destruction

From the Inside — Thoughts on Place-Based Education at a Community College


When I first started including service-learning projects in my computer courses more than a decade ago, I was seen as somewhat of an oddity. Service in a technical course? That had to be wrong. Since the service-learning program at my community college had been in existence, service projects by in large were included in social science, language, and science classes. The only career classes with embedded service were expected to be in the medical fields. They made sense there.

But service in a technical course? What was that about? Many felt, and may still feel, that adding service-learning or place-based education to a career technical (CTE) credit class was taking valuable time away from learning needed job skills for a career. I begged to differ, and I still do. I have been a strong supporter of adding community work to CTE courses for two main reasons: community service that is tied to course technical skills and outcomes engages students in real-life practice of the very skills the course is striving to teach, and this pedagogy shows students that the CTE skills they are learning can lead them to becoming a vital part of their communities, in addition to being employed, when they graduate.

Here’s an example: I sought out help from the engineering program at my community college when a need arose in my own work with computer eCycling on-campus. People in the community appreciated our responsibly recycling their unwanted computer hardware, but they were worried about identity theft when they donated items containing hard drives. The eCycling vendor we partnered with had a machine that could bore a hole through the center of hard drives and make it impossible to retrieve data from those drives, but that machine had a steep price tag attached to it and wasn’t readily available for continual use. I, not surprisingly, had no budget, so I approached the instructor who taught the engineering department’s capstone class.

In this class, students work in teams to meet a real-life, on-campus need using all the skills they’ve learned in prior classes while polishing their professional communication skills by working with clients outside their department. People with these needs serve as the clients and explain their situations during the 1st week. Teams then decide which client they’d like to work for, present a proposal for developing a machine that would successfully meet their needs, get regular feedback from the client, and develop the desired machine. This CTE place-based education right on campus shows students that they can contribute to the school community using the skills they have acquired. Their confidence soars!

My project was a popular one. What engineering student wouldn’t want to build a machine that would destroy something? All I asked was that the machine would safely make the hard drive’s data irretrievable without making a huge mess! One proposal for a computer guillotine was quickly nixed. I was presented with three working machines at the end of the term. One only worked once when it was presented in class, but the other two stood up to numerous tests. Since then, we have held many “Hard Drive Smashing” events where students disassemble donated computers to remove hard drives and then eliminate the potential for identity theft in their “smashing”. We have currently smashed over 1,000 hard drives.

Students participating in this project helped our school provide the larger community with risk-free eCycling. At the same time, our eCycling project educated engineering students about the need for responsible computer recycling both from an environmental and human rights standpoint. What in-class textbook project has the opportunity to do that in a tech class?

In future columns, I will share examples of other ways place-based education is being successfully integrated into CTE programs. If you know of some examples, I’d love to hear about them.

Diane Shingledecker is the District Service-Learning Faculty Coordinator specializing in Career Technical Education, as well as, a Computer Applications Instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. She is an enthusiastic alumni of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer Institute on Service-Learning. She has been incorporating service-learning into her classes for the past 13 years and helping other faculty do this for the past 3 years. She is a participant in Portland State University’s Graduate Certificate Program in Service-Learning.

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