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Lehigh’s Innovation Boot Camp

In the first part of our profile of Engineering 5, first-year students learn the principles of engineering while getting hands-on experience across a multitude of disciplines. Check back later this week for part II of the series on Engineering 5, about one of the undergraduate student sections in the course reaching out to a local school district in need of a science and technology boost.

Engineering 5 students discuss their research

It’s a required course for all engineering freshmen, designed to give students a glimpse of the realities of practical engineering and some further input into their major-selection process. Half of the first-year engineering students take the course in the fall, half in the spring. Sounds pretty dry so far.

Professors from across the engineering curriculum divide each class into teams and guide them through projects that delve into particular engineering problems, and each class is split into two five-week sessions so that students complete two projects in a semester. Again, nothing novel here.

But when you learn what the student/faculty teams are up to in Engineering 5, it becomes crystal clear that this no typical collegiate “Intro to Engineering.”

Laptop-brained robots line dancing and playing soccer? The earthquake-proofing of tall buildings, the design of economically-feasible water filtration systems for developing communities? Streamlining Pepsi’s product delivery process? And, in a project that defies attempts at delicate explanation, a “rat-warmer” that protects anesthetized animals from going into hypothermia via posterior insertion of a temperature sensor?

All in the first year – for some students, in the first few weeks of their college careers?

Clearly, these students have not embarked upon the conventional first-year collegiate experience. And according to Keith Gardiner, professor of industrial and systems engineering and coordinator of the Engineering 5 course, this class is more than just a requirement – it’s essential.

"Yes, Engineering 5 teaches the fundamentals of engineering and gives students a taste of many flavors of engineering,” says Keith. “But in the context of our approach to engineering curriculum overall, the class is an entry point for students into interdisciplinary thinking. Most practical engineering problems encountered in industry are cross-disciplinary and this is the environment we emulate.” Keith says that the course forces students to think creatively and to solve problems – the very heart of what it means to be an engineer, and the very heart of innovation.

"The rat-warmer project is a perfect example of this,” Keith says. “It’s part biology, part electrical engineering, part veterinary science. The project also engages students in integrating industrial engineering, materials science, and mechanical engineering. The students have no choice but to travel outside of their intellectual comfort zone to devise a solution, and in doing so expand that comfort zone.”

Keith Gardiner

“Another essential part of the course, says Keith, is the hands-on experience that grooms first-year students for further undergraduate and graduate research as well as real-world application. “Students learn to take their theories and apply ‘shop skills’ to create practical solutions,” he says. “At Lehigh, we’ve got a strong tradition of undergraduate research across the board as well as innovation-heavy programs such as Integrated Product Development.

“Engineering 5 is a good primer for students interested in exploring those pursuits,” Keith continues. “And even though many of our students’ future careers will see them managing other engineers and workers, they will benefit immeasurably from having an understanding of what it takes to translate ideas into reality. Engineering 5 also gives them a sense of how to work on teams consisting of people with different personalities and skills – another critical skill to success in today’s job market.”

And how do the students themselves feel about their experience in Engineering 5? Perhaps it’s best to let one of last semester’s students say it themselves.

The following is a transcript of a comment posted to the Engineering 5 discussion Web page. The author, part of the “rat-warmer” project described above, has chosen to remain anonymous. However, her comments speak volumes about the power of Engineering 5 to ignite the “inner engineer” in first-year students, and provide them with the tools necessary to begin exploring the power of engineering.

"Hey Everyone!

I'm also in the Rat Probe Project (as it seems to be called), and let me say that it turned out completely different than I thought it would. I remember the day Haller came to present his project to all of Eng 5... I sat there thinking "BOY...it would sure suck to be in that group..I mean...what do I care about electronics...let alone as applied to a rat heating bed...Come on! A rat rectal probe?!!" So, x-amount of weeks later, I'm here writing on a discussion board telling other people that it was SOOOO fun (well...for me, that is)! Haller is an amazing teacher. Not only is he humorous, understanding, and intelligent, but he's also SO excited to be teaching us. He's what I consider to be a real teacher, in the sense that he wants us to learn and is excited to see us grow. I won't sugar-coat things and say that it was easy. Sometimes he would assign us a research paper on something that some of us didn't even know existed (or maybe that's only me... I really knew NOTHING at ALL about electrical engineering, to the extent that I didn't even know what a resistor was....yes, that bad). So, in that sense, by giving us half-impossible tasks, we all struggled but came out with a bigger "E" than if he were to just tell us "the answer." And the "E" just referenced? Don't ask...if you have Haller, you'll figure out what it is soon enough. So yes, if you're looking for a "quick and dirty" synopsis of the rat probe project, here it is: Taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy!! And, how could I forget, the occasional sleepless night spent plunked in front of a PC looking up things such as the diameter of a rat's b*******...but hey, isn't that what you do most nights anyway?

So yeah, I was going to write more about how this project really involves a little bit of every engineering discipline, how it's very VERY important to delegate responsibilities between the members of your group (or else you get stuck doing the project by yourself the night before it's due...*cough*), how everything comes down to money in the end, how asking questions is a good strategy to do well in this project, bla bla bla, but it is now 12:06 in the morning and my brain has just shut down (like a transistor switch! open circuit! no flow = no function!). See? Gone. Good luck to you all!"



Check back soon for the second part of our series on Engineering 5, about how a team of students and faculty have come together to help a local middle school build Mars in its basement.

Posted on Monday, January 16, 2006

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