Service-Learning at Northeastern: Not Just an Undergraduate Experience

By Service-Learning Program Assistant and Co-op Henry Finnegan

With 50 classes this fall, Service-Learning (S-L) at Northeastern experienced it’s biggest semester yet. S-L courses were offered in every college, ranging from 2 Dimensional Fundamentals in Surface and Drawing to Cornerstones of Engineering, and expanded beyond undergraduate opportunities. Six graduate S-L courses took place this fall, also the most ever for S-L at NU. They were Computer-Human Interaction with Andrea Parker, Big Data for Cities with Dan O’Brien, Marketing in the Service Sector with Paul Fombelle, Creating and Sustaining Consumer Markets with Jay Mulki, Principles and History of Urban Health with Shan Mohammed, and the Seminar in School Psychology with Louis Kruger. With an increase in classes comes a plethora of new projects and service opportunities, and I was interested to learn more about what the Master’s and Doctoral Degree candidates were working on. Additionally, I wanted to dig deeper into how service-learning was integrated into their courses, so I spoke with Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Fombelle.

Big Data for Cities, College of Social Sciences and Humanities – Policy School

Big Data for Cities with Dr. Dan O’Brien focuses on investigating the city and its spatial, social, and economic dynamics through the lens of data and visual analytics. Utilizing a large public dataset, students develop knowledge about visual methods for analyzing data and communicating results. The course offers students an opportunity to develop a critical understanding of data structures, collection methodologies, and their inherent biases. Dr. O’Brien “wants the things that the students are learning not only to be practical in theory but practical in practice,” which is why he has chosen to include service-learning in his classes for years. Service-Learning has given his students the chance to not just imagine or think hypothetically about the relevance of what they’re studying, but actually experiencing it and having “a basis for implementing those skills that they’re learning over the course of the semester in that external context.” Dr. O’Brien finds it important that students to be exposed to certain nuances and minutia that are so common in the real world of statistics, so once they get there they will be prepared to continue growing.

Dr. Dan O’Brien

According to O’Brien, the nature of the projects in his course include “students trying to basically clean, organize, and develop new, meaningful measures from the dataset they are given,” so eventually they can “uncover something new about the urban landscape based off the data.” For example, one group is using data from sensors in Downtown Crossing, and the data is “brand new” and “totally different” than anything O’Brien’s class has used in the past. The dataset, from a laboratory called SenseLab, tracks carbon dioxide readings from the city in minute-to-minute intervals. Instead of a tangible dataset that “exists for an extended period of time,” like a public record or license, the data from SenseLab only exists briefly, but casts a massive amount of information. Students have to find a way to understand the data from its patterns and trajectories, and use that to make assumptions. The end goal of this project resides in the public health sector, and the students are using the data to measure the air quality – or the “comfortability” as one of O’Brien’s students puts it – of Downtown Crossing. Dr. O’Brien says the scholars are, “using the two places that we have sensors right now as a pilot for what you might think of doing if you had sensors all over the city, and you could really track these constructs in a minute fashion.”

Students in Big Data also use records to analyze data trends in Boston. Often, business licenses are studied because they expire and renew, and can support interesting questions about demographics in certain areas of a city. For example, Dr. O’Brien explained if you’re asking questions about gentrification, and you “think it’s related to one of the stereotypes that exist – number of coffee shops or something like that,” then “you need to be able to measure it over time.” A basic cross-sectional cut of businesses in the city won’t do that, and it “takes some bigger thinking as to how to structure such a database” and “how to coax such information out of the data that you have.”

Watch: Dr. Dan O’Brien describes the benefits of an MS in Informatics at Northeastern and its Service-Learning aspect here.


Marketing in the Service Sector, D’Amore McKim School of Business

Marketing in the Service Sector with Dr. Paul Fombelle provides students with knowledge of management needs and techniques associated with the service sector of the economy. It includes understanding the differences between goods and service marketing, and how these differences influence marketing strategy and the tactical design of marketing mix variables. Additionally, the course assists in understanding the difference between tangible goods and services, differences in the consumer evaluation process between goods and services, special marketing problems created by the differences between goods and services, and strategies that address the unique problems in service marketing. Students “look at traditional marketing concepts through a whole new lens,” says Fombelle, and work towards “understanding their value proposition and how to communicate their value proposition in the intangible world of services.” The majority of our economy, around 70-90%, is service-based, and Fombelle sees his students having “some aspect of service in their future jobs.” Another “big part” of Dr. Fombelle’s course philosophy is giving back to the community. He asks his students, “how do we understand we’re part of a bigger community, a bigger ecosystem, and how do we deliver a value outside of our own profit and loss?” This is where service-learning has impact, and “comes in as a tool for the students to go out into practicing reality and to use the tools that they’re building in the course.”

Dr. Paul Fombelle

Fombelle asks his students to work in groups with different nonprofits throughout the semester, which comes with its own challenges. When faced with a problem in the nonprofit service world, usually the most obvious solutions are to “raise more money, hire more employees, or spend more money on a technology.” But that is almost never an option for a small nonprofit. “You can’t just open up the money faucet and fix the problem,” Fombelle says, “so I think the challenge that organizations themselves face and the students face is how do we solve our needs, our problems, our dilemmas without drastically changing our financial situation?” It forces students to find creative solutions to problems, rather than just the easiest one. Dr. Fombelle’s class has worked with different types of nonprofits – homeless shelters, food shelters, child services, and more. Projects over the years have included designing behind the scenes technology infrastructure, redesigning programs for children, and assisting environmental services.

Service-Learning is not limited to just undergraduate courses, and with students conducting service projects all over Boston, graduate courses at Northeastern have made their mark on our community. Part of learning, studying, and becoming a professional in a certain field is learning the real-world application of your profession. As Dr. O’Brien puts it, “when you think about the purpose of education, we’re giving these people these skills in the hope that they’ll use them and will be able to use them when appropriate.” The integration of service-learning in graduate courses allows students to practice these skills during their education by pulling them out of the isolation of a classroom, because “if you keep them in isolation then sure, they might be able to apply them in the future and realize the connections that you’ve made from the class,” says O’Brien, “but it’s probably so much easier for them to do so if you give them clear, tangible experiences that help them make those connections in ways that aren’t always academic,” and that’s exactly what service-learning does.

The students in Big Data for Cities partnered with the Boston Department of Innovation and Technology, Massachusetts Department of Innovation and Technology, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, The Boston Indicators Project, and GE Current this semester. 

The students in Marketing in the Service Sector parntered with Madison Park Development Corporation, the Northeastern University Speech-Language and Hearing Center, and Youth Enrichment Services


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