The educational importance of finding passion, doing hands-on projects, and making an impact

The photo anchoring a web page for Lehigh University’s Baja SAE team ostensibly shows four impressively large trophies—a collection suggesting a tale of competition and victory. But the picture’s other details suggest an even deeper, more multilayered story. The prizes perch on a hand-built, dune-buggy-like, off-road vehicle framed by roll bars and sporting fat, gnarly tires.

Designed and built by Lehigh students for competitive events sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the vehicle sits on a scrubby patch of grass off a dirt trail and—in sharp contrast to the gleaming swag—is caked from top to bottom with thick mud. Implied in this picture-worth-a-thousand-words are a backstory of passion, effort, grit, technical know-how, collaboration, execution, and success.

All of those elements came into play during two years in which the student team designed, manufactured, and tested an off-road vehicle that they then took to two 2017 competitions, in Kansas and Illinois. At each event, Lehigh students pitted their vehicle against those from about 100 teams from around the world—some from larger schools with major corporate sponsorships—in tests of technical requirements, engineering, and cost-effectiveness. Vehicles that passed a technical inspection also competed in dynamic events such as tests of traction, suspension, acceleration, maneuverability, and hill climbing, culminating in a four-hour endurance race through obstacles like jumps, hairpin turns, rugged terrain, and creeks. Hence the mud.

At the Kansas event, the Lehigh team shook up the world by taking first place in dynamic competition and fifth place overall. In a team-page video, students look back on their experience from its earliest moments. “We were thinking about: What were we getting out of our time at Lehigh?” says recent mechanical engineering graduate Jonathan Whitcraft ’17. “We thought doing a project like this would supplement everything that we’re learning in the classroom terrifically, and we would learn so much more than we ever could have even imagined [we’d learn] in the classroom, which I think is absolutely true.”

The students were tapping into a concept that’s becoming increasingly important at the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and across Lehigh University as a whole: experiential learning. “I’ve been in higher education for more than 30 years, and we’re in a real changing environment when it comes to how undergraduate engineering education is conceived and delivered,” says Steve DeWeerth, professor and dean of the Rossin College. “We’re moving from a didactic, faculty-centric model of teaching in which a teacher dictates information in a classroom setting for 50 minutes, to a student-centric model of learning fueled by the concept of creative inquiry.”

While classroom teaching remains important, students increasingly have opportunities to find hands-on interests and projects for which they are truly passionate. These build on what they’re learning in the classroom, have a tangible impact in the world and prompt them to think about where their experiences and classroom learning together might lead in their careers.

“That’s the essence of experiential learning, and I would argue that opportunities for students on this front over the last decade or so have just blossomed,” DeWeerth says. “We’re learning that how we teach matters as much as what we teach, and we’re finding ways to facilitate these opportunities.”

Real-World Problem-Solving

Experiential learning differs from more traditional forms of pedagogy in part by allowing students to solve real-world problems. “It’s not as much about solving closed problems where there’s perfect information and a given solution that the teacher already knows,” says Greg Tonkay, professor and associate dean for academic affairs. “It’s more about solving open-ended problems in which students can arrive at different solutions.”

That vision more closely mirrors what students will encounter once they graduate.

"The world isn’t black-and-white like a high-school calculus test,” DeWeerth says. “Real-world problems almost never have exact answers, otherwise they’re not actual problems. Yet that black-and-white approach is typically how we’ve educated in the past. Experiential learning avoids so-called toy problems. The real world is: Here’s a problem, we don’t know what the answer is, there isn’t a perfect answer, but there are some good answers—and bad answers—and you have to go explore that space,” he says.

The hope is that from the start of their Lehigh education, students will consider what open-ended, real-world questions look like along with what critical thinking skills and interdisciplinary approaches are needed to provide effective answers. “To do that, we need to blur the lines between what’s in the curriculum and what’s out,” DeWeerth says. Experiential learning isn’t meant to be a “co-curricular” add-on. “I don’t want to draw a line between experiential learning on one side and classroom learning on another,” DeWeerth says. “They can be parts of an integrated whole.”

Experiential Opportunities

Pathways to experiential learning already exist at Lehigh. Industry internships have long been a way for students to gain practical experience. “They’re becoming almost essential for us now,” DeWeerth says. Student research with faculty—common among graduate students—is becoming increasingly common among undergraduates. A large percentage of students take part in international experiences that allow them, for example, to apply classroom knowledge in disciplines such as engineering or computing to solving problems in developing countries. Service learning opportunities enable students to apply scientific or engineering skills to help communities or address social issues. Competition teams and clubs such as Baja SAE or Formula SAE — a similar club that designs and builds a Formula-style race car—encourage students to apply engineering and critical thinking skills in scored effort competitions that participants hope will outperform those of rival teams.

Some projects meld multiple forms of opportunity. Combining service, competition and international experience, one Lehigh group — Team Soterra — is among 21 out of 85 teams from around the world that advanced to the semifinal round of the international Anu and Naveen Jain Women’s Safety Prize offered by the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages innovators to develop technological solutions to pressing problems. The Lehigh team is developing a handheld device that allows users who feel threatened to quickly alert preselected personal contacts or police. The device employs a Bluetooth mesh networking solution along with GPS technology that will pinpoint a user’s location with 50 times greater accuracy than a triangulated cell signal. Students are developing the device in hopes of reducing violence against women, especially in areas of the world where cell phone ownership is low.

A number of Lehigh initiatives encourage these kinds of experiential activities. The Mountaintop Initiative allows students to work freely across disciplines in pursuit of innovative, creative answers to open-ended problems and questions. The Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation fosters and champions entrepreneurial culture, nurtures creative thinking, and provides opportunities and resources for students across disciplines to put innovative ideas and technologies into practice.

Currently, the Rossin College is moving to incorporate experiential learning more fully into its curricula. “My goal is to have 100 percent of our undergraduate students engage in meaningful experiential learning during their education at Lehigh,” DeWeerth says. “We’re putting together a process to make that happen.”

Expanding Vision

Capstone Design requirements for engineering programs have long provided opportunities for students to gain real-world experiences, often driven by the needs of an external client or partner with a problem to solve. For example, Lehigh’s award-winning Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) Capstone program gives juniors, seniors and graduate students in engineering, business and the design arts an opportunity to work in interdisciplinary teams to design, fabricate, and produce products for industrial partners. “We’re moving now toward doing more design projects in the first year,” DeWeerth says. “By starting capstone-like projects early in their careers, students will have more experience when they get to their capstone projects.”

According to DeWeerth, TE Capstone is a model for growing Capstone Design across the College due to its client-driven emphasis on real-world problems and its interdisciplinary approach.

"It sounds a bit hyperbolic, but some of the hardest and most interesting problems are at the interface of disciplines these days,” he says. “We see this in industry, and we hear it from people who hire our students. Our graduates will be working in interdisciplinary teams when they leave campus, and they will benefit immeasurably from participation in a culture of interdisciplinary excellence while they are here.”

Building and emphasizing interdisciplinary team science and experiential learning—whether faculty-led research, international opportunities, industry experience, service learning, or competition teams—not only helps students learn; it also supports broader strategic goals of growing Lehigh’s research output, productivity, impact, and reputation.

To further develop a culture in which students search for and explore passionate interests that can focus and drive their academic pursuits, the college plans to begin a peer-mentoring program in fall 2018. Building on a university-wide program, student mentors who have participated in experiential learning will help introduce the idea to diverse first-year students.

“The goal is that by the end of the first semester, incoming students will each write an experiential learning plan that starts them thinking about the opportunities that are available and what they hope to do during their four years at Lehigh,” DeWeerth says.

Plans drawn up so early in an education are expected to change. But whatever journey students go on, by the end of four years it’s hoped they will have portfolios of experiential projects that show the fruits of their education beyond deskbound classes and a grade point average.

"A Capstone Design project could be involved, or if they’re on an SAE team, they can say, ‘Look, here’s the car my team worked on and here’s the part I designed—and we got fifth place nationally,’” DeWeerth says. “That helps students define their own stories. It’s important for them to start thinking in terms of ‘Who do I want to be as an engineer?’”

Engineering Indentity

Experiences help establish personal identity, and experiential learning is thought to connect education to a deeper sense of who a person is. DeWeerth maintains that thinking about opportunities for experiences early in an education tends to put students in a different mindset that’s less “how do I get a degree in engineering?” and more “What does it mean to be an engineer?”

“We need to start feeding students that mindset even before we start feeding them skillsets and knowledge,” DeWeerth says.

Thinking in terms of meaning, passion, and opportunity often leads to a more creative and entrepreneurial outlook. That's a key goal of curriculum design encouraged by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), a collaboration of colleges and universities dedicated to developing an entrepreneurial mindset in engineering students. KEEN, an initiative of the Kern Family Foundation, has provided funding to Lehigh for three years.

"When we finish the latest phase of our grant, we will have more than half of the faculty members in our college involved in developing or applying entrepreneurial mindset learning in their courses," DeWeerth says. "They're asking, 'How do I expand the way I educate beyond standing in front of a classroom three times a week?' They're being creative in their pedagogy, and the fact that it has impacted so much of our faculty means we're making a cultural change."

The shift has drawn in students as well. "At Lehigh, we've paired faculty members with students to develop activities around what students feel would be helpful to them as learners," Tonkay says. "We're actually starting from the student's point of view and working up."

Promoting this entrepreneurial mindset may inspire students to develop products and start companies. "This is an area where we've seen rapid growth across the country," DeWeerth says. "We have some of that at Lehigh and I think it will continue to grow both here and elsewhere. Whether products or companies succeed or not, learning an entrepreneurial mindset will permeate whatever a student's career becomes."

If an idea does succeed, students have ownership. "Even if university resources or fabrication facilities are involved, as long as it wasn't funded by the university or federal sponsors, students are able to use their intellectual property," DeWeerth says. "They own their ideas." Like experiential learning as a whole, that's a win for Lehigh, he says: "Our goal is the success of our students."

Story by Richard Laliberte