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Service Learning in the U.S. Virgin Islands:  A Virtual Preservation Project

University of Maine

Promising Approaches

(3) Encourage and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction.

(4) Encourage and support activities…that provide opportunities for students to be engaged in their campuses and communities.

(5) Encourage and support interactions across cultural differences.


In Spring 2004, eight UMaine students interned in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.  They worked with a diverse group representing archeology, art and science education, forestry, engineering, and engineering technology, to preserve a fragile but historically significant site in virtual form.  While using and integrating cutting edge technology in a unique preservation project, the students also expanded their sense of how their skills could solve complex problems in the social world and piloted a promising partnership.  They worked with Karen Horton (Mechanical Engineering Technology) and Constance Holden (Spatial Information Science and Engineering) from the University of Maine, in partnership with Ken Wild, the park’s archeologist.  Through coursework (MET 220 Modeling of Archeological Structures), a two-week on-site internship, and a concluding report to Ken Wild, they and four other students who did not travel developed a useful pilot model to preserve other threatened structures in the park, as well as other threatened historical sites.

The site includes hundreds of crumbling plantation structures built by enslaved people from Africa to provide sugar and rum to North America and Europe under a brutal colonial system.  Ken Wild offered students a chance to learn from the site about Caribbean sugar production and the slave system, while they used their academic knowledge to pilot a detailed virtual model of a deteriorating water-drawing windmill, as well as doing a lot of preliminary work on other structures and the terrain.  This was technically an enormously challenging problem; the Spring 2004 interns piloted several successful new interdisciplinary solutions.  Moreover, they gained an appreciation for the intersection of technology and social institutions in the Atlantic system linking Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe.

Special Features

Civic Learning Goals

  • Civic Knowledge:  The historical and cultural context for the production of sugar in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and by extension in the larger Atlantic system; the difference which that history makes to the landscape and to cultural perceptions and public values in the U.S. and the Americas today.
  • Civic Skills: GIS and computer modeling skills applied to a geographical/historical problem of preservation of our common heritage; technical writing for a community client; interdisciplinary teamwork and project management skills.  The intern group was diverse in terms of discipline, race, and gender.
  • Civic Attitudes/Dispositions: Students learned that their skills and problem-solving abilities could make a difference in the world.  They also learned that working in teams with people different from themselves is deeply rewarding.

Contact Information

Karen J. Horton, Assoc. Prof. of Mechanical Engineering Technology

Constance Holden, Instructor in Spatial Information Science and Engineering

Houtman, Nick.  “Re-engineering the Past,” UMaine Today, January/February 2005. Orono, ME. 

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