The Public Service Center (PSC) is expanding its mission and programs to include more faculty and staff and offer curriculum-based options for volunteer work in Cambridge and surrounding communities.
New PSC director Sally Susnowitz, who directed the Learning Service Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder before moving to Massachusetts, sees public service as an educational opportunity. She envisions hands-on learning courses that put student designs and initiatives in community-based organizations that can use the help.
This aspect of public service, known as "service learning," has become a popular means of educating students at many universities, according to Ms. Susnowitz.
For instance, she said, "civil and environmental engineering, architecture or urban planning students can come up with plans to solve neighborhood problems. Or biology students could write synopses of cancer research papers for the layperson, and put those synopses on line where the public could access them." Working with interested faculty members, she could assist them with designing assignments that offer hands-on learning opportunities for the community for course credit.
"MIT students represent such a valuable set of contributors that there's no reason they should wait until after school to begin contributing," said Ms. Susnowitz, who was appointed assistant dean and director of the PSC last September. "When MIT students do get involved, they seem to recognize how valuable their contributions really are.
"I'd like faculty to call and say 'I have an idea for doing something.' The Public Service Center can then assist by researching approaches, assisting with community contacts, developing materials and helping to locate funding possibilities," she said.
Some new projects already have been initiated with the Edgerton Center and in writing courses. One such course, the Public Service Design Seminar (SP.760) for freshmen, gets underway this spring. The Edgerton Center course provides six credit units for students to complete design projects in mechanical, chemical, computer science, electrical, civil or environmental engineering for community service organizations.
Other important aspects of the PSC include the LINKS and KEYS programs. LINKS puts student volunteers in Cambridge school science classrooms to assist teachers at seven public schools. The KEYS program exposes girls ages 11-14 to science and technical fields, and works on building their self-esteem at the same time.
Ms. Susnowitz and Jill Soucy, assistant director of the PSC, would like to expand programs like these into Boston schools. They see the expanded PSC mission as providing a means for doing more with community-based organizations, forming collaborative relationships with other MIT outreach programs and becoming an information source for other volunteer opportunities available at the Institute.
The PSC presently acts as a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities, receiving 40-50 requests from individuals and nonprofit organizations each month seeking MIT volunteers. It helps student groups launch and carry out their own projects, such as the Panhellenic Society's Giving Tree. Some well-known programs, such as Alternative Spring Break and Project Health, started as PSC programs and have since expanded into student-run organizations. And it offers fellowships. IAP Fellows work in Cambridge science classrooms for 100 hours each for $1,000. Summer fellowships place students in community organizations to do in-depth work for $4,000.
Ms. Susnowitz encourages faculty and staff to contact her or Ms. Soucy to learn about opportunities for service in the communities surrounding MIT. They can be contacted at x3-0742 or at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Public Service Center web site lists volunteer opportunities and program descriptions.
"Our focus is on motivating and facilitating community service, and while our main mission is to engage students -- both graduate and undergraduate -- we need to provide models for students on how public service can work. For that, we need faculty and staff involvement," she said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2001.