Standing amid a swarm of sixty-odd undergrads outside of Levine Hall, Mark Yim raises a bright yellow box of Gobstopper candies. The professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics (MEAM) is wearing a button-down oxford, but otherwise he doesn’t look all that different from his T-shirted students. Yim’s thin blue pinstripes accentuate his lean physique, and his thick black hair and unlined face lend him an air of almost boyish enthusiasm. Today the sunshine has put an extra gleam in his eyes, for he is about to become the master of a treasure hunt modeled after the old TV show MacGyver.

Freshman, sophomore, and junior engineering students have assembled into three-person teams pursuing extra credit the week before finals. After Yim sweetens the pot with three iPod Shuffles representing first prize, he lays out the first condition for finishing the race.

“Every member of your team must be alive at the end,” he says.

The students tighten into a scrum around the young professor but the chatter of a dozen conversations and phone calls does not abate.

“If I called out your name,” Yim continues in a slightly raised voice, “you should have gotten a piece of candy. And you should have eaten it.” Tongues stained purple and orange flash below rows of white teeth. “That candy that your team member has just eaten turns out to be tainted with a nasty radioactive—”

“Wait!” blurts a young woman in pink shorts, whose attention seems to have been divided four ways until right this second. “We didn’t get a candy! We need a candy!”

A short commotion ensues while Rachel Rothman EAS’08 gets her team a Gobstopper, and Yim resumes.

“It’s tainted with a nasty radioactive poison made by a secret society called the Mean Masons,” he says. “Luckily for you, the Mean Masons have an antidote. The only problem is finding the ingredients and combining them.” Yim reels off a few made-up chemical names and explains that a series of clues and challenges will enable their collection. The students can use any tool at any time, he adds.

“You can use textbooks, the Internet, professors,” he says. “You can call people, use the machine shop, whatever you like.” But there’s one hard-and-fast rule. “Any intentional delay or sabotage of another team will result in immediate ejection and revoke all extra credit.”

A chorus of groans fills the courtyard along with a few laughs. “Is that really real?” someone shouts.

But as soon as they discover that their first clue awaits inside a locker in Skirkanich Hall, the herd splinters. Rachel Rothman lets out what can only be described as a war whoop and darts across the flagstones with the abruptness of a cartoon character leaving a smoke trail.

Ten steps into her sprint she loses hold of her Verizon Q smartphone. The device sails out in front of her. It’s one of those moments when impending doom drags everything into slow motion, the phone now aloft and spinning like a helicopter blade, arcing through a parabola that seems to go on forever until the miniature keyboard smashes against hard stone, pulverizing the LCD screen in the instant the passage of time snaps back to full speed. Her $200 gadget totaled, Rothman hollers, “Casualty!” but breaks stride only long enough to pluck it from the ground while bolting for the glass doors in front of her.

 

“Students are different than they were even 10 years ago,” Mark Yim says in the comfort of his Towne Building office, which is cluttered with all kinds of mechanical and electrical components. When he isn’t teaching or running scavenger hunts, Yim can sometimes be found designing a robot that’s able to reassemble itself after being exploded into pieces (or kicked apart by a graduate student, in its current stage of development). In a way, his impact on today’s undergrads predates his arrival at Penn in 2004. As one of the inventors of the Rumble Pak, a late-1990s videogame controller that vibrated in a player’s hands at select moments, Yim is more deeply plugged into the culture of youth than the average professor.

To give an idea of just how different today’s college kids are, one thing he likes to talk about is the Thumb Generation.

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Digital Natives by Trey Popp
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