Community organizations make use
of students' writing, design skills © June 29, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

For a service-learning project, NU engineering management student Sean Wynot created professional renderings for an addition planned by a local senior center.

rendering courtesy of Sean WynotFor a service-learning project, NU engineering management student Sean Wynot created a professional rendering for an addition planned by a local senior center.

A well-known idea from chaos theory suggests the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world.

If organizers of a Northfield, Vt., senior center are successful in building a new addition to their facility, the butterfly’s wings may prove to be a Norwich University professor’s attempt to make a course more relevant. English Prof. Kate Donley has made community service part of a professional and technical writing class.

“It didn't feel like the course was jelling to me,” said Donley, an adjunct faculty member who taught the course for the first time in spring 2012. “I couldn’t figure out how to create an assignment to motivate students to write well in a professional context.”

I had no idea that some of my skills and some of the things I can do can help so much.

Baylee Annis
Norwich sophomore

In particular, she did not think a hypothetical scenario would unite 17 students representing majors as diverse as English, engineering, business and construction engineering management.

“There’s no kind of imaginary task that could help them all in their future careers,” said Donley.

She decided, instead, to look to the real world and the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which brought devastation to many Vermont towns in August 2011. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Donley realized there were probably civic and nonprofit organizations close to Norwich’s Northfield campus that needed help with fundraising letters, grants, web pages or instructional manuals. She contacted Norwich’s Center for Civic Engagement, which referred her to the Northfield Senior Center, The Veterans Place, and Community Emergency Relief Volunteers (CERV). Donley was “overwhelmed” when all three took her up on the offer.

The largest of three student teams was assigned to the senior center, as it represented the greatest need. Students developed a new logo, drafted and designed a brochure and a master document to assist in grant writing. Some students, such as sophomore Sean Wynot, even assisted with plans to build a new 1,000-square-foot entrance that includes an administrative office and living space, expected to cost $160,000 to $180,000.

A construction engineering management major, Wynot and others created a computer-generated 3D design of the addition that included green features such as solar panels and plant boxes along the roof’s edge to catch rainwater. Wynot admitted to being surprised by the complexity of the project, and how much was involved over and above writing.

“There’s so much that goes into a project; finding the money, designing it, scheduling, hiring contractors, getting permits, making sure everything is up to code and up to date. The depth of the project on a construction basis is just amazing,” said Wynot.

Sophomore Baylee Annis, majoring in English and education, helped draft a “master grant” document to provide information for grant applications. Gathering the information proved daunting, she said.

“Grants are very specific. You need a lot of information, not only about prior activities and events but also things the organization has been through, their basis, the people they serve, and their impact on a community,“ said Annis. “I had to find a lot of information and create a story out of it, and make it a story of the organization, and I don’t mean just numbers.”

Pat Ryan, a senior center volunteer and its principal grant writer, welcomed the idea of a service-learning project where Norwich students pitch in and help.

“I'm a native of Northfield and I've always felt that we underuse what we have in our own backyard, that is, lots of knowledgeable people in so many different areas,” said Ryan, who used to write grants as an employee at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college.

Students spent a lot of time with the center’s staff and members, said Ryan, and impressed many with their energy, ideas and openness to working in a team environment.

“They were interested and they were concerned,” said Ryan. ”What was wonderful about working with a team with peoples from all ages is there were no boundaries. There was nothing like, ‘We're the students’ or ‘We’re the center.’ [The students] brought new life and new energy to it, and it was cool.”

Wynot and Annis both said the practical experience they gained was invaluable.

“As a sophomore, I don’t know a lot of what I should know before I graduate,” said Wynot. “I think I picked up a lot of experience and I think that was a big deal.”

“Educationally, it was a great experience to see what we learn applied in the real world,” said Annis. “Professionally, it was a great way to see how professional and technical writing works in the real world.”

She also called it a revelation on a personal level.

“I had no idea that some of my skills and some of the things I can do can help so much.”