Focus On
Service Learning

Shirley Fleischmann Padnos College of Engineering professor Shirley Fleischmann helps her students give back to the community
-By Brian J. Bowe

Just like most university engineering students, the ones in Padnos College of Engineering learn things like the principles of fluid mechanics and heat transfer. But thanks to professor Shirley Fleischmann, those students also learn the value of caring for those less fortunate.

Fleischmann stresses service learning, and students complete community service projects as part of their studies. "It's part of helping students realize that they are part of a community," said Fleischmann.

Fleischmann came to the Grand Valley community in 1989 after a successful teaching career at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland. She said she was attracted to Grand Valley because the engineering program was young, allowing her to make a major contribution.

She and her students make steady contributions to the inner-city Grand Rapids community. In Fleischmann's senior level heat transfer course, students completed energy surveys of an urban neighborhood home and at Coit School. Those surveys involved applications of heat transfer as well as activities designed to make students aware of people who live in conditions much different than their own.

Under her direction, students designed and built a playroom for children at the Mel Trotter Ministries. The students have also adopted the entire class of fifth graders at Sibley Elementary. Activities with those youngsters include touring the engineering laboratory facilities, conducting bottle rocket experiments, experimenting with a circuit trainer in preparation for the MEAP tests and competing in a pinewood derby race.

But the biggest project is "bikes-for kids." Fleischmann was looking for a project for her students that would help them learn the value of community service while using the special expertise that engineering students have. At first, she enlisted some people to tutor elementary school kids.

students from Sibley Elementary

Students from Sibley Elementary School visit Padnos Engineering Laboratories several times a year to work with Grand Valley engineering students.

"It turned out to be something that didn't require any engineering skill," Fleischmann said. "At the same time, we had some students who were really involved in bicycling. I got to thinking that there are probably a lot of kids in the neighborhood who would like a bike and there were probably a lot of people like me who had old bikes in the garage."

Repairing the bikes, she said, was a project that would give the students much-needed experience using hand tools, and it was the kind of thing a student could drop in and work on for as little as 10 minutes at a time, so it could easily be shoehorned into a busy study schedule.

The project has been a big success. So far, more than 100 bicycles have been given away. "I lost track after 100," Fleischmann said.

"It was the students' idea that we should definitely give (the kids) a bike helmet and a lock and some information about how to maintain their bikes and some safety rules," Fleischmann said.

Fleischmann has been frequently lauded for her service work. She was named the Carnegie Foundation Michigan Professor of the Year in 1998. In 2004, she was presented with the dedicated service award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). She's the second faculty member to receive the award. Last year, the award was presented to Paul Plotkowski, the college's executive director.

When she received the ASME award, Fleischmann was honored for being the driving force behind service learning for engineering students at Grand Valley. The award honors unusually dedicated voluntary service to the society marked by outstanding performance, demonstrated effective leadership, prolonged and committed service, devotion, enthusiasm and faithfulness. The award is presented to individuals who have served the society for 10 years or more.

student working with bottle rockets

Grand Valley Students help Sibley students make soda bottle rockets for a demonstration of engineering principles.

student with child on bike

Shirley Fleischmann's work on a "bikes-for-kids" program has received national attention.

The annual Pinewood Derby is a popular event for elementary students.

"She has chosen service projects that utilize the unique skills of the engineering students. This simultaneously helps develop student understanding of community needs and reinforces the hands-on skills that are central to the engineering discipline," said Mahesh C. Aggarwal, regional vice president of ASME International.

Fleischmann has secured grants to support service-learning projects, and has given presentations to her engineering colleagues nationally on the value of those projects. She is adamant that the projects involve learning for the youngsters. When some of the engineering students suggested a Christmas gift drive, Fleischmann nixed the idea.

"I was firmly against that because what the kids really, really need is knowledge of what they themselves can do and what their inner resources are," Fleischmann said. "We never just give them a handout."

Each time the Grand Valley and Sibley students interact, there's a project to complete that gives the children the satisfaction of making something themselves.

"The projects that we choose help the kids realize what they can do, what their own potential is," Fleischmann said.

While the children receive much from the interaction with Grand Valley students, it's a two-way street. "The first thing that students take away from it is just a sense of well-being that comes from doing something good," Fleischmann said. "But also, for many of them, this is the first time that they're seeing a whole group of people who live entirely different than they do. And if you're going to go out and design wonderful things as an engineer, you need to know a lot about people who aren't like you."

It also teaches students to be responsible citizens. "What is it that these people need that we can help them with, and how do we give it to them in such a way that doesn't destroy their dignity?" Fleischmann said.

Fleischmann is unabashedly religious, and said her commitment to community service is partially informed by her beliefs. In fact, she cites the Old Testament exhortation to "do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" as one of her inspirations.

Page last modified March 17, 2014