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‘A Defining Moment’ for Lehigh

Students working at Mountaintop last summer engaged in open-ended pilot projects. Faculty mentors identified subject areas and types of problems while students took responsibility for determining project goals and the manner in which they would achieve them.

In what she described as a “defining moment” for Lehigh, President Alice P. Gast has announced that the university is embarking on a bold new initiative to renovate and reimagine two former Bethlehem Steel research facilities on its Mountaintop campus with the support of a $20 million gift from alumnus Scott Belair ’69.

“I am enormously grateful to Scott for his vision in enabling Lehigh to use these incredible spaces to benefit Lehigh students with a truly transformative experience,” Gast said. “Great spaces can serve as catalysts for progress. There are rare moments in the history of a university when an absolutely unique opportunity arises. This is one of those moments.”

Mountaintop provides an opportunity for students to define complex questions, take intellectual risks, use faculty as mentors, and access resources and support from across the university and beyond. Students will be challenged to develop their capacities for creativity, inquiry, discovery, synthesis and teamwork.

Lehigh acquired the massive buildings—approximately 120,000-square-feet in what is known as Buildings B and C—in May, and this past summer, a number of Lehigh students and faculty engaged in a set of Mountaintop pilot programs. For these projects, faculty mentors identified subject areas or kinds of problems, but students were responsible for determining their goals and the details of their work. Students and faculty who participated in this summer’s pilot projects have called the experience one of their most rewarding in their time at Lehigh, testifying to the strong impact that the open-ended and self-directed approach to learning can have.

“I think experiences like this bring a tremendous amount to the table,” said Rick Weisman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who served as faculty advisor at Mountaintop this summer. “Being guided through some open-ended problems before you graduate, I think, is an essential part of what we consider a university education.”

One team of students isolated and characterized viruses that attack bacteria that are readily found in soil, as part of a large national effort to identify those that can be active against TB. Other teams developed a prototype for durable housing for refugees, designed an integrated system for both crop production and water filtration, and produced a documentary film about the first four women faculty members in the English department at the university. Still others worked on ideas for close interactions between people and computers.

Michael Kramp, an associate professor of English who served as faculty advisor for the First Four documentary project, said the freedom of the Mountaintop experience pushed his students to “rise to the occasion” and fully embrace their creative vision.

“The Mountaintop Pilot Program created an environment in which we as educators could communicate this freedom to the students at the beginning of the project; we then felt quite comfortable and confident reminding them of this freedom,” Kramp said. “Indeed, this freedom became synonymous with the students’ responsibility and accountability to each other and the final outcome of the project.”

Ideas for additional projects and uses of the facility will be sought in the months to come, and Belair’s gift will be used as a catalyst to raise an additional $40 million as Lehigh moves ahead on Phase I of the multi-phase Mountaintop project.

Students who participated in the Mountaintop pilot projects spoke about the opportunities to challenge themselves and about how the experience changed their thinking about their education.

Jacob Puzycki ’14, a physics major who worked with a team to consider educational use of 3D printing for students in developing countries, said his Mountaintop experience has convinced him that such programs represent “the next step” in the Lehigh student experience.“I can say for sure that this project has changed the way I think about ‘work,’” Puzycki said. “It was the first time I've set the criteria for what success looks like and it built an important bridge between my college experience and the ‘real world.’”

“More than what I learned about agriculture and water, this summer taught me the importance of flexibility and improvisation in problem solving—and that things will hardly ever go as one plans,” added Alexandra Gordon ‘14, an IDEAS major who worked on the crop production and water filtration project. “It also allowed me the extraordinarily satisfying ability to physically work, test and build things for our research.”

“Mountaintop truly forces the student to be original, to be innovative, to take initiative,” said Penn Scott ’14, a member of the “Super Car” pilot project that sought to predict the evolution of performance in automobiles. “You don’t have somebody there holding your hand. You really have to feel it out on your own. And as a result, that makes it a much more enriching experience.”

Vassie Ware, a professor of molecular biology and faculty advisor for the TB and Global Health group, said the value of Mountaintop was that it allowed students time to think. With no “defined end” to their projects, they were given the freedom to work through a problem by testing out any number of potential solutions.

“Sometimes, students in a laboratory might be in the habit of thinking, 'This has been done. This experiment has been done before. What's the answer?'” Ware said. “Well, [at Mountaintop] we don't have the answer. We're discovering.”

The creativity and expertise of the faculty and the entire Lehigh community will be critical to making Mountaintop a success, Gast said. “My confidence in our faculty is one of the reasons I am so excited about what we will do on our Mountaintop campus.”

The University will host two Town Halls to discuss the venture with the campus community. The first will take place on Wednesday, November 20 from 1 to 3 p.m. in Lamberton Hall; the second will take place on Friday, November 22 from 10 a.m. to Noon, again in Lamberton Hall.

Posted on Thursday, October 17, 2013

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