Community Partnership

Students appreciate people’s lived experiences, particularly the social-cultural context within which solutions have to be fashioned, which is important to success and is an area of learning often missed in technical education.
- Ann Howard, Rochester Institute of Technology

Rochester Institute of Technology

Community Partnership

Contributed by Edmond Dougherty. This article originally appeared in KEEN Annual Report, 2019-2020. Reprinted with permission.

At Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), a core team is working on a program to positively impact local and global communities while teaching students entrepreneurial mindset (EM). With assistance from KEEN, VentureWell, and others, faculty members Sarah Brownell, Marcos Esterman, Ann Howard, and Rob Stevens are revising and developing courses that allow students to solve community-identified issues.

Brownell explains the synergy: “Community partners bring local context, rich life experiences, and an organization of motivated people committed to improving community well-being. RIT students bring fresh perspectives, an understanding of emerging technologies, methods, and ideas, and access to university resources for research and design. Doing authentic, engaged projects takes a committed, open-minded, multidisciplinary team ready to explore motivations and values and cultivate trusting relationships.”

Sarah Brownell

Ann Howard

Two courses impacted include Sustainable Communities and Engineering and the Developing World. 

Howard describes the EM component: “We want to help students understand that expertise comes in a variety of ways. Students appreciate people’s lived experiences, particularly the social-cultural context within which solutions have to be fashioned, which is important to success and is an area of learning often missed in technical education.”

At the heart of both courses are contemporary community challenges. Students team with community representatives to identify opportunities and select the ones with the most potential for positive impact. With community members, the teams then conduct research to understand the challenges through the lens of technology, sustainability, and culture. 

“The key to success is long-term partnerships,” Howard explains. “These are not one-off projects where we drop students into the community and pull them out again. We want to create a real sense of trust. By having those long-term relationships, we learn more about where the community partners want us to apply our expertise. Often the outcomes are iterative; some projects can last several semesters.”

RIT is a mandatory co-op school. 

Esterman states, “Community projects work well as co-op experiences. Students in the field identify gaps and new challenges, and these cycle into projects for the following year. We're setting up a virtuous cycle where projects are not only learning experiences but continue to have meaningful impact.”

Past iterative projects include converting agricultural waste into products, electrification in rural areas, custom irrigation systems for community gardens, and the development of production tools such as dryers and presses.

Marcos Esterman
Sustainable Communities students conduct interviews with project stakeholders.

Sustainable Communities students conduct interviews with project stakeholders.

International Market in Rochester

Engineering and Developing World students setting up for gathering feedback from interactive prototypes at the International Market in Rochester.

Income generation projects for rural women

RIT students collaborating with the Mothers’ Club (yellow shirts) in Borgne, Haiti on income generation projects for rural women.

Associated Content

University of Denver makerspace

Leadership Unleashed from the Grassroots

Explore how a grassroots team of faculty, staff and students can drive change even when an idea is not initially a priority of university leadership! This card provides a scaffolding of suggestions for starting and growing an idea as well as an example of how a loosely organized team at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has used these strategies to better integrate community engaged learning into the engineering curriculum.

Meet the Authors

Edmond Dougherty

Edmond Dougherty, Retired Professor of Practice and Director Engineering Entrepreneurship, Villanova University

Edmond has many years of experience in the design, development, and management of complex electronic and software systems. He was part of a team that helped develop the Emmy and Academy Award winning Skycam, an aerial robotic control camera system. He also developed an aerial camera system called Wavecam that is now owned by Skycam. He has 13 US patents. He was awarded the IEEE Member Award for the Philadelphia area, and the Meyer Innovation and Creative Excellence (ICE) Award at Villanova University.
Sarah Brownell

Sarah Brownell, Senior Lecturer and Director of Grand Challenges Scholars Program, Rochester Institute of Technology

Sarah works with many Multidisciplinary Senior Design student teams each year, developing and leading projects with service learning, design for global development, sustainability or student initiated components. She hopes to engage her students as global citizens who can offer their creativity, skills and training in partnership for the benefit of ecosystems and humanity, especially in working in solidarity with marginalized communities. At RIT she is helping to develop and implement the Social Impact Design and Engagement Program (SIDE) including the courses Engineering and the Developing World and Social Impact Design Field Experience in Haiti. She also helped develop a course for the School of Individualized Study on Wicked Problems.
Ann Howard

Ann Howard, Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology

Ann is a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society and director of University and Community Partnerships.
Marcos Esterman

Marcos Esterman, Associate Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology

Marcos focuses his research on structured product development methods, the integration of Lean into Product Development and Commercialization. His teaching interests are in product and process development, and systems engineering. Marcos is director of the Lean Engineering and Product Development Simulation (LEaP) Lab.

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