SAN JOSE -- The storage closet was packed with boxes, giant barrels for toy drives and an overflow of nonperishable food. The constant influx of donations and supplies at Sacred Heart Community Service, an organization serving San Jose's low-income families, had outgrown the shelves.

"I'll just say, space is at a premium," said Carol Stephenson, Sacred Heart's community involvement coordinator.

They needed a smarter way to store their stuff. And who better to help than engineering students from San Jose State University. The students fashioned a sturdy, adjustable storage unit, with large, deep shelves and handles for heaving and pulling -- all on wheels.

"It's the nicest piece of furniture we have," said Stephenson. "Nothing ever gets built custom for us."

Although the structure isn't incredibly complex, the program behind it is intended to introduce SJSU engineering majors to design and construction, all while instilling the students with a sense of community and public service.

Thirty-two incoming freshmen arrived on campus even before the semester began last fall for the new 10-day program in service learning, called EXCEED. University faculty and staff taught math and engineering basics, interspersed with workshops on study skills and time management. EXCEED aims to give students the skills to graduate as engineers.

Many students, especially women and underrepresented students, don't pursue or stick with engineering because they aren't aware how it can help people, said Stacy Gleixner, the project's director and SJSU engineering professor.

"We're showing them a way engineers make a difference in society," Gleixner said.

Small groups of students met with five community organizations to discuss the structures they needed, and their specifics -- dimensions, weight and flexibility.

One group paired up with the Third Street Community Center, which runs a science-based, after-school program for mostly low-income youth. There, elementary school students craft wheels and other rolling machines. The kids spin their creations down old planks of wood as their instructors teach them about scientific concepts like friction and gravity.

But the wooden board they used was fairly makeshift. "We just kind of propped it up," said Rosemary Baez, executive director of the Third Street Community Center. "It wasn't the nicest looking thing, but it was functional."

The EXCEED engineers wanted to change that.

They scribbled numerous designs, measured and remeasured, and drew up new plans. Many of these aspiring engineers had ever stepped foot in a wood shop or pushed a plank through a table saw.

By the end of 10 days, after hours of sawing, sanding and painting, the students created a colorful, adjustable ramp.

"I was glad to see the theory come into reality," said Khalif Moore-Stevenson, 19, who worked on the project and hopes to pursue a career in software engineering.

This month, the Third Street youth will be doing some engineering of their own: they'll design and build cars to race down the new ramp. The fresh track has energized the kids, said Baez: "They take it a little more seriously."

Other teams of engineering students built a cart to move tables and chairs for community events held at InnVision, a compost bin for a community garden, and a storage unit for an odd-shaped closet at Third Street.

The program has had a transformative effect, showing young engineers that some communities are in need of help. "It was an eye-opener for all of us," said Allison Rice, 19, who had never seen projects like Sacred Heart where she grew up, in small Maine towns and then Yuba City.

EXCEED has even changed the way community partners see engineers. "It was neat to see that engineering in action, that it can solve problems and that it can make a difference for our work," said Sacred Heart's Stephenson.

Applications for the program's second year should are online this month. And Gleixner hopes to expand the program to more students in the future.

She sees the benefit in the connections students make with faculty and the community. Students that have gone through the program are more confident in their engineering skills, said Gleixner.

Moore-Stevenson hopes to use his software engineering skills to build video games that teach teenagers math or history. After the program he's got a solid understanding on what engineers can do: "They critically think and they collaborate to build things or products that help people."