Community Awareness Initiatives Responsibly-Directed by Engineers (CAIRDE) is a program developed for Mechanical and Biomedical Engineers students attending the National University of Ireland in Galway. CAIRDE introduces a new approach to Irish engineering education—experiential learning—which takes university students out of the classroom to show them what kind of impact their knowledge can have on improving their surrounding communities. The program gives students an opportunity to take on leadership roles as well as interact with communities in need. In doing so, CAIRDE provides its students with a new way of viewing their role in society and how the knowledge they gain in the classroom can be applied to the wider community.
CAIRDE is a pioneer program for service learning amongst engineering students in Ireland. Since the program’s inception in 2003, over 500 students have taken part in service learning projects, devoting over 8000 hours of service to local communities. The students have made tremendous strides in taking an active role in society and have gained strong relationships with their community partners. CAIRDE has enabled students to build a link between the university and community, showing how collaboration between the two can yield positive results that are reciprocally beneficial.
Students of the CAIRDE program are expected to take on a great deal of responsibility in the facilitation of their service learning project. They must develop a project that enables them to utilize their engineering skills in order to address a real need for an individual or group in the broader community. By putting this knowledge into action, students work directly with the beneficiaries of the project, ensuring their needs are met through the work conducted. Projects vary in terms of the beneficiaries and type of work students engage in. Some may work with established organizations such as Enable Ireland, The Simon Community, National Council for the Blind Ireland and The GAF (a youth cafe). Others direct their efforts towards supporting local schools, nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, playgrounds and athletic clubs. Some students choose to address the needs of a specific individual by either contributing to personal care or improving one’s quality of life. The success of these projects has gained CAIRDE such great recognition that the number of community organizations wishing to collaborate with the program continues to increase.
CAIRDE demonstrates the value of service learning, as it requires student participants to use and develop "soft skills" that are invaluable to engineers but often difficult to teach in a traditional classroom setting. These “soft skills” include project management, task analysis and interpersonal skills as well as practicing shared decision-making and being able to reflect on their learning and experiences. Additionally, the students are able to apply knowledge to a specific, "real" project for the first time, helping them view their academic preparation in a new light. All the while, CAIRDE is fostering a greater understanding of community needs and what methods can be taken to address these needs.
Upon hearing the announcement of the MacJannet Prize, Dr. James J. Browne, President of the National University of Ireland, Galway, credited this service learning initiative as “a hallmark of the student experience at NUI Galway that offers real learning in a community context.” Dr. Browne goes on to say that, for the CAIRDE student, theory taught within the classroom is brought to life “while improving the lives of those living in often challenging situations.”
CAIRDE places great emphasis on how the students understand their impact on society. Therefore, reflection plays a central role to the service learning process. In the reflection process, students tie in what they are learning about the community as well as how they can further develop their engineering skills. Students share this reflection with the greater educational community, building awareness and demonstrating to their peers how university students can make a difference in their surrounding communities.