A Classroom Leaves the Syllabus to the Students

At a summer program at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa., Colleen Perry worked on a device that fits around a weakened hand to help it move.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The scene in a cavernous building atop a forested hill here resembles a brainy, free-form summer camp, or a loft where twentysomethings meet to pursue esoteric dreams. It does not look like the usual notion of college.

A few Lehigh University students turn out prosthetic hands on a 3-D printer. Yards away, another group studies the breeding habits of endangered fish darting around wading pools, and yet another pieces together a film about a Polish poet. Most of the students here are pursuing their own projects — about 30 in all — and finding their own way, with little faculty input and with nothing more at stake than testing their own ambition, skills and curiosity.

“We got a group together and said what we wanted to do, and the administration just said, ‘O.K., ask for any equipment or advice you need,’ ” said Colleen Perry, who is studying bioengineering. “We’ve definitely made mistakes, but it’s probably the first time in our lives that we’re not getting a grade and we don’t have anyone telling us what to do.”

Lehigh first tried what it calls its mountaintop program on a smaller scale last summer, combining elements that scholars of education have advocated for years — research, work experience and independent, long-form projects. Proponents say such hands-on approaches not only reinforce what students learn, they also foster innovation, collaboration and persistence.

Some colleges have expanded those practices, but the going has been slow. The annual National Survey of Student Engagement shows that by the time they graduate, fewer than half of college students have done internships or some other kind of field experience, fewer than half have done a senior thesis or similar capstone project, and just 23 percent have done research with a faculty member outside of what is required for their courses.

Universities often reserve serious research and in-depth work for graduate students. And students who do get the chance usually assist on professors’ projects or work under close faculty supervision.

“We know that these are high-impact practices that we’ve been expanding, but we need to think about new models of how to promote them, because a faculty member can only take on so many students to mentor directly,” said Lynnette Overby, director of undergraduate research and experiential learning at the University of Delaware. So what Lehigh is trying, she said, “is pretty interesting.”

Lehigh’s mountaintop program has more than 100 students this summer, including a few from nearby colleges, and most of them are undergraduates. Some of the projects came from professors, and a handful are intended to produce business start-ups. But most were created by the students, with no requirement to publish or patent results, and as much or as little involvement by faculty mentors as the students want.

Students formed teams in unusual combinations, like the group developing a miniature aquaponic farm that can raise both fish and vegetables with minimal space, water loss, energy use and maintenance. The team includes students majoring in finance and French, in addition to budding engineers.

“We want to create sustainable farming that can be done anywhere, even an urban environment, and we’re trying to get Lehigh to use the food we raise,” said Kimberly Hetrick, an engineering major on that project. Peering down at the tilapia circling in their tank, she said that after coming up with the concept, building it has been an eye-opening challenge.

Another aquatic project is studying the endangered desert pupfish of the American Southwest to determine if subtle changes in its environment can prevent other fish from eating its eggs.

A summer program with no course credit, no set curriculum to cover, no competing class schedule and no penalty for failure frees students to experiment, said Alan J. Snyder, a vice president and associate provost at Lehigh. Eventually, the university plans to offer the program year-round, with many more students involved.

“The lines between the classroom and the lab, the workshop, need to blur,” he said. “Especially in an era where the textbook is old before the ink is dry, students need to be independent thinkers, discoverers.”

A growing number of universities want to provide students with adaptable spaces for innovation, particularly for graduate students in applied sciences whose ideas might turn into businesses — such so-called incubator spaces are an integral part of Cornell’s plan for a new graduate school in New York City. Few schools have the extra room, but Lehigh does, in a former Bethlehem Steel complex on a hilltop just south of campus, which the university bought and has renovated over many years.

One building acquired last year, with open floors and high ceilings like an aircraft hangar, has become home to the mountaintop program.

Some of the projects here are based in the humanities, social science or business, but the largest number involve engineering and computing — on subjects such as robotics, composting, innovative playground structures, security for cloud computing, ventilation for cooking huts, water purification and a “smart house” controlled from the owner’s phone.

The teams have a small budget for supplies and travel, and each student receives a stipend — $450 a week for undergrads, $600 for graduate students — to make up for not having a summer job.

Each team submitted a brief proposal, often just one page, and once it was approved, the students were allowed to move in whatever direction the work took them. Ms. Perry’s group at first set out to design and produce low-cost prosthetics for children, as an alternative to expensive devices that users outgrow every few months. But they dropped that plan early on, after consulting with rehabilitation experts at a hospital.

“We realized that, at least in the United States, there are more kids who have strokes or cerebral palsy and need a kind of rehabilitation device, rather than a prosthetic hand,” said Elena Ramirez, a bioengineering major. What they are developing now is a sort of exoskeleton to fit around a weakened hand to help it move.

Another group nearby had a different take on the prosthetic idea, and has stuck with it, trying to make a hand that can grip and release, controlled by shoulder and back muscles rather than sophisticated electronics. Their goal is to produce something low-tech and inexpensive enough to work in poor parts of the world.

“It turns out the movement of the thumb is really hard to do,” said Zakaria Hsain, who is on that team, showing the failed digits on a few prototypes. “But getting to try, to do this — it’s amazing.”

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