Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to focus on a number of initiatives in civil engineering undergraduate programmes at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) that allow students to complete engineering projects in the community, enabling them to learn by doing.Design/methodology/approach – A formal commitment to civic engagement was undertaken by the NUIG in 2001 with the establishment of the Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) to work on mainstreaming civic engagement (service learning) within the curriculum across the institution. Today, the majority of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes in the College of Engineering and Informatics at NUIG have embedded service learning into their curriculum. These initiatives allow students to work with and in local communities, international communities and multidisciplinary groups as part of their academic courses. The paper investigates and shows that community-based projects can enhance student learning and engagement in a number of ways. At NUIG, these projects are framed by a research orientation, commitments to civic engagement and building university-community partnerships, city-university partnerships and partnerships with other official agencies, so that community users can provide real learning problems and contexts for students and researchers and benefit from the results.Findings – It was found that the students got a sense of pride and satisfaction out of the knowledge that their work may be helping communities and that learning is not just to get marks to pass the exam! The projects can increase the students’ sense of ownership of their own learning. Learners are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others.Research limitations/implications – The work represents work done in one institution affecting a region in a country. This can be extended to include more institutions and other regions. This paper presents evidence from the aforementioned projects that by creating service-based learning the students’ energy in learning can have a positive impact on the community.Practical implications – The energy and enthusiasm of learners can be better utilised (and increased) by setting assignments as real community-based projects.Originality/value – This lies in the design of projects and assessment involving education providers and public for the benefit of learners and the society at large.