MEDFORD -- A few years ago, Tufts University engineering Professor Chris Swan decided to offer students in his class on toxic-land cleanup a choice for their final project: They could design a hypothetical project on paper, or they could choose a real polluted site in the Boston area and devise a cleanup plan.
It turned out that the students who picked the real-life project worked much harder, knowing "real people would be looking at their results," Swan said. They grappled with more complex problems and even shed tears when they encountered injustice in the political process.
Since then, Swan's students have tackled a variety of real-world problems, and have expanded their horizons as far as Ghana, where a small group traveled last month for their senior project.
Swan's efforts have been funded by the University College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, which some believe is the most ambitious attempt by any research university to make public service part of its core academic mission.
As colleges nationwide see a dropoff in graduates who enter the public sector, and respond by trying to get students involved in community service, the Tufts effort represents something different: a plan to weave the idea of civic engagement throughout every part of the university.
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"We think this is a powerful initiative that complements in a very imaginative way our academic aspirations for the university, which are also bold," Provost Jamshed Bharucha said.
University College doesn't just run community service projects, and it is not a separate school that gives degrees. Rather, it works throughout different academic departments to turn classes into vehicles for "active citizenship." The administration hopes it will become a signature feature of the university that will help attract top faculty, students, and donors.
"When people think about Tufts University, they will think about its commitment to this mission," said Alan Solomont, chairman of University College's board and a major Democratic Party fund-raiser. "Just like the Fletcher School [of Law and Diplomacy] has elevated Tufts's standing and helped draw students and faculty, I would suspect our commitment to civic education would be similarly significant for the university."
The program was designed to overcome a traditional objection to community service -- that it's an extracurricular activity that pulls students away from their academic work.
"Students only have so many hours they can spend in four years of college, so if they are engaging in service-learning activities, one of the concerns is whether it takes away from some other learning they might be doing," said Donald E. Heller of Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education, speaking in general and not specifically about University College.
Tufts officials say that if a program is organized properly, it doesn't just complement classroom education, but actually improves it. Swan, the engineering professor, said his students end up solving harder problems when they have to deal with the messiness of the real world. And they develop a deeper understanding of their responsibilities as professionals and citizens.
"I'm looking for them to say, `I need to be active in my community to solve some of these problems,' " Swan said. Future engineers "begin to recognize they don't sit on the sidelines and say, `When you're done debating, I'll crunch some numbers for you.' "
By itself, getting students to do volunteer work is not so hard -- they're doing it in record numbers, whether through fraternities and athletic teams or on their own, said Elizabeth L. Hollander, executive director of Campus Compact, an organization of almost 950 college presidents that promotes civic goals in higher education. Eighty-three percent of this year's college freshmen participated in volunteer work in the past year, according to UCLA's annual freshmen survey.
The more vexing task is getting young people to take the next step, whether it's tackling the root causes of a social ill or going into a public-service career. Students are turned off by politics and often graduate with heavy debt that makes the business world more attractive than the public sector, Hollander believes.
"We don't see the broader civic engagement," she said. "They feel they can serve someone one-on-one but they can't imagine getting rid of homelessness. There's a huge problem that the younger generation is not applying for federal jobs."
Robert M. Hollister, the dean of University College, says Tufts can help change that. Something else that sets the project apart, he said, is its commitment to measuring educational results by looking at the kind of community work taken up by students and alumni. He expects to see more Tufts graduates serving on nonprofit boards, working in government, or simply bringing civic values into the corporate world.
Tufts has already added questions about "active citizenship" to surveys for entering freshmen and graduating seniors, and this year it's starting a study of entering freshmen, to compare those who are part of University College's scholarship program to those who aren't, over their college careers.
"We expect to be able to point to a dramatic increase in the civic engagement of alumni," Hollister said.
Hollister says "active citizenship" -- a term popular with proponents of community values in the academe -- has a place in every discipline. In a documentary film class last semester, students made films about social problems ranging from pollution on the Mystic River to modern-day slavery in Sudan. Students in a nutrition class are working with Somerville schools and restaurants to offer children healthier meals.
About 60 classes so far have received funding or other support from University College; the target is about 200 in every department, from introductory to advanced.
Still, it's up to professors to decide to participate. We don't want all classes to do this," said Hollister. "A class on Shakespeare is, first and foremost, a class on Shakespeare."
To help professors develop new courses, University College gives two-year fellowships, with $30,000 in funding to develop and pay for innovative projects. It has also brought in outside fellows, from former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen to Emmy Award-winning television producer Roberta Oster Sachs, who taught the documentary class.
University College also offers scholarships to students who agree to serve as campus role models in public service and to study the topic.
One such student is junior Zach Baker, who in his three years of college has organized a camp for children with disabilities, biked across the United States to raise money for human rights, and helped build an elementary school in Ghana.
Baker, 20, also works on the "Shape Up Somerville" nutrition project, and is teaching a course on childhood obesity this semester. He plans to go into a public health career.
Tufts is unusual among research universities in its emphasis on civic education, said Hollander, of Campus Compact. She is in discussions with a number of other schools on how to try a similar approach.
"Tufts is particularly ambitious in a setting where we need ambition," she said. "We are really hoping they are going to lead the way for a bunch of others."
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.