What does a 21st century environment for learning, discovery and engagement look like?
How should the development of young people, the process of discovery, and the engagement with partners and constituents be interrelated in the context of higher education?
How should people in different fields of study, and at different levels of formal attainment, relate to one another?
And how can universities foster these kinds of interdisciplinary relationships in a way that not only conveys new knowledge to participants, but ultimately delivers important solutions for an ever more complicated world?
On a chilly, rainy Friday afternoon this fall, Lehigh students, faculty and staff gathered on campus to ask—and, through an open, hour-long conversation, attempt to answer—those very questions. The impetus for gathering, the second of two held in the course of a week in late November, was the official launch of the Mountaintop project, a potentially groundbreaking initiative that could allow Lehigh to take the lead in rethinking the boundaries of higher education.
With a $20 million gift from Scott Belair ’69, Lehigh is working to transform two soaring former Bethlehem Steel research bays on South Mountain into vibrant and unique learning environments—places where students will be given the freedom to pursue answers to open-ended questions and, in the process, will be challenged to increase their capacities for independent discovery, for taking intellectual risks and learning from failures, for collaboration, for recognizing important problems and opportunities, and for effecting constructive and sustainable change.
The core idea of Mountaintop, in short, is to offer students the freedom to engage in the most open kind of learning environment possible—one that will allow them to define the boundaries of their educational experiences. And to hear students who have already experienced Mountaintop tell it, the freedom they enjoyed up on South Mountain stands out as perhaps the most powerful experience they’ve had at Lehigh.
These students came to Mountaintop in different ways, and the pilot projects they took part in ran the academic gamut—from automotive engineering and film production to public health and interior design. Some students ended up precisely where they thought they would; others took detours into wildly unexpected new paths. But almost all said they were grateful for the opportunity—and excited for what their peers might come up with on the Mountain in the years to come.
Here, we share a few of these students’ stories—stories that hint at the vast possibilities of these spaces, and this project and this university.
JACOB PUZYCKI ’14
Technology for Developing Communities Project
My group members and I had quite an interesting experience this summer. We were given a very undefined goal: utilize new technologies and new innovations to help eliminate poverty in small Kenyan communities.
To begin we wanted to see how feasible it was for inexperienced individuals to use new technologies, so we built our own 3D printer, a technology that was new to me and had blown my mind just months before. Through that process, we discovered that we were capable of more than we had thought we were. None of us had real experience in engineering, yet we were able to build this complicated device, as long as we had proper guidance, support and motivation.
That mental framework became the foundation of our project: that people are capable of much more than they may think they are. We decided that the best thing we could do for a group of people struggling with poverty was to empower them to help themselves.
So, after undergoing four weeks of brainstorming and idea analysis, we decided that we would develop a curriculum that Kenyan community leaders could use to help struggling entrepreneurs in their communities. The curriculum focuses on developing business skills and discovering creative new ways of thinking, so that people might solve problems in their communities—benefiting their own lives and giving sustainable growth to their local economies.
I can say for sure that this project has changed the way I think about ‘work.’ 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.’ I’m really excited for where this project will go, and hope to continue this work through the rest of the school year or even beyond. Who knows where it will take me?
LAURA CASALE ’15
‘First Four’ Film Project
To me, the Mountaintop projects are a real testament to—and example of—the opportunities available here for Lehigh students. I became involved in the projects solely due to a professor I had first semester sophomore year, Michael Kramp. I had Professor Kramp for Introduction to Film, and I expressed to him interest in film as a possible career. As a result of that he asked a fellow classmate, Meghan Barwick, and me to be part of a film called The First Four.
It really was the best experience I’ve had at Lehigh thus far, because not only did it teach me valuable film skills, but it also allowed me to meet or talk to four amazing women (four of the first five women on Lehigh’s English faculty) who have basically paved the way for me and other women at Lehigh. The stories they told me and the lessons I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life. This project made me more aware of gender inequalities, how far we have come, how far we still have to go, and why I have to be a part in making sure change continues to happen.
There were times during the project that I doubted myself and my decisions, but our advisers—Michael Kramp and Julia Maserjian—were amazing at making us trust our own instincts. It was stressed to us over and over that this was OUR project and we could do what we wanted with it. I think that these types of projects are essential to being a well-rounded student because they give us the freedom and responsibility to create something. We weren’t given much guidance on what to do, tough decisions had to be made, and we all felt confident in making them.
I’m extremely proud of the work Nadia, Liana, Meghan and I did, and of being able to have been a part of a great initiative at Lehigh.
MEGHAN BARWICK ’15
‘First Four’ Film Project
Being able to take part in the Mountaintop projects this summer has been amazing.
I was so excited to be asked by my professor and advisor for the project, Michael Kramp, because he knew how excited I was about film. Since we don’t have a film major (or minor for that matter), I knew I’d have to bushwhack in a sense to get to where I wanted to be. This project was exactly what I needed.
I got to plan and execute a film with three other girls. We were independent and relied on each other to keep the project going. For the project, I got to travel to California to meet one of the four amazing Lehigh professors featured in our film. Without the Mountaintop initiative backing the project, I would have never had the opportunity to practice what I want to be a part of my career after graduating.
And since finishing, it’s been so exciting. We’ve premiered it at
Lehigh to a room full of students and faculty; and we’ve show it at a film festival, and won an award for best short (15 to 50 minutes). I learned a great deal through making the film about the subject matter and the skills it takes to create a work like this.
LISA GLOVER, GRADUATE STUDENT
Creativity Space Project
For the Creativity Space project, we were charged with designing a place for Integrated Product Development and Technical Entrepreneurship students to work on their endeavors. We expanded on this idea, developing a space where all members of the university could be creative and innovative.
As a former architecture major and current Technical Entrepreneurship master’s student, I am passionate about creating and designing. While I have access to the resources that make my dreams possible, most Lehigh students do not (or may not be aware of them). These students are just as excited and inventive as I am but access to basic resources such as a woodshop, laser cutter and 3-D printer is, in most cases, difficult to attain.
During the project, we learned that we weren’t the only ones who wanted a more open-ended space where any number of creative activities can take place. We found inspiration in the renovated Navy yards of Brooklyn and Philadelphia, as well as the newly designed headquarters of Google and Autodesk. Our ultimate vision for the C2 bay includes several open-plan floors, movable ‘creativity cells,’ multiple prototyping and shop spaces and numerous amenities that would allow for longer stays on the Mountaintop campus.
While working on our own project was fun, it was perhaps even more fascinating to see what other groups were working on. From 3D printers, to refugee housing, to the car of the future, we watched these complex projects develop in what was not much more than a shell of a building with relatively few resources on hand. Imagine what the students could do if the building was specifically designed to help them explore, create and develop their brilliant ideas into something more!
From what I’ve noticed, as we grow up we thoughtlessly and unnecessarily limit ourselves in what we believe to be possible. Mountaintop could be a place of creativity and innovation where we free ourselves from our existing notions of how the world has to be, where we can restore our imagination so that we can better solve the problems of the future. We need science, technology, engineering and math in order to make progress, but we can’t forget about what inspires and directs that progress: creativity.
PENN SCOTT ’13Xiphias Car Project
By the time Building C-2 opened for the summer pilot program, James [Suh] and I had already spent several months pulling together the foundations of our car design. We’d been grinding out models and sketches late into each night, using nightstands for desks, cramped between our computers and his closet.
The prospect of staking out a better habitat for bringing the Xiphias Concept to life thrilled us, so we arrived right when the doors opened in May to claim our spot. During our hundred days over the summer, with the assistance of Miguel Roman ‘13, Robert Vargo ‘14 and the Lehigh community at large, our team explored the development of innovative solutions in automotive engineering and design.
There’s a fine line that an open workspace like C-2 must tread, between offering teams a chance to build off each other’s enthusiasm while leaving room for their privacy, and the building’s unique setup
walked it quite gracefully. We had a blast exchanging ideas with groups building refugee shelters or augmented reality spaces as we raced forward designing a supercar concept.
Perhaps what our team is most grateful for is the university’s trust in our ideas and in our self-motivation. This [Mountaintop] program took a risk by exploring a new educational model, but I know we aren’t the only group who walked away with some great results at the end of the summer.
Even as the fall semester got underway, we pressed on with our project and are only now officially wrapping up work. Beneath the skin of the Xiphias Concept vehicle, there is now the world’s first purely topology-optimized automotive chassis—showcasing the promise that computational simulation offers in the development of super-efficient structures. Without our experience with Mountaintop over the summer, we simply would not have had the chance to pursue such a radical, immersive end goal.
And for that reason, we’d like to say thanks once again to the Lehigh community and also to express our enthusiasm for seeing the Mountaintop experience take shape at the university.
JAMES SUH ’14
Xiphias Car Project
As a designer, I always dreamed about working on a long-term automotive project—where I can take a leading role to provide a unique and desirable design package and work in conjunction with engineers to allow the project to develop much further. Fortunately, I was able to find talented students who share my passion in cars yet have distinctive academic and professional backgrounds at Lehigh: Penn Scott ‘13 (IDEAS), Marcus Risland ‘14 (finance) and myself ‘14 (design). Our interdisciplinary team immediately went to work. My Campus Square dorm room became our office where we met to make progress on the car every day.
A larger workspace, financial support and exposure to the Lehigh community and beyond were much needed components of the project. The Mountaintop program offered us all of that. During our time this summer, we were able to focus on the car (while being) surrounded by other motivated student teams in Mountaintop. The atmosphere where we can feed off each other’s enthusiasm worked incredibly well with the openness of the building C2.
As a team, we are most grateful for the university’s trust in our ambitious idea. I can still clearly remember our first meeting with the administration; although we did not have materials to prove our thoughts, the conversation was about how to make this a reality and what are the specific steps to get there, rather than disapproval. I am extremely thrilled to be involved in a program where students were in the driver’s seat to work on something that they are truly passionate about.
We are officially wrapping up our work this semester. However, this project allowed our student supporters like Miguel Roman ’13 and Robert Vargo ’14 to start their individual projects. For the rest of my time at Lehigh, I will be extending my work with the concept by working on a full-scale ergonomic study of the vehicle. I realize that not many undergraduate designers (even the professionals) get to design the entire car with their purest vision and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I have. I would like to say thanks again to the Lehigh community and I hope to be involved with the Mountaintop program even after my time at Lehigh.
Story by Tim Hyland
Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014