The term comes from a phenomenon first noticed in Japan, among early adopters of text-messaging and other cell phone-based forms of entertainment. Habituated to these devices since their early adolescence, members of this peer group had begun to call themselves oya yubi sedai, or the thumb tribe.

“The Thumb Generation is kids who use their thumbs for mostly texting with their phones, things like that,” Yim explains. “And they do it so much, the thumb has become the dominant finger. So they don’t point with their index finger; they point with their thumb. When they go up to a doorbell, they don’t use their index finger—they use their thumb!”

For Yim, this is an object lesson in how technology is transforming everything, right down to the instincts that govern a person’s hand gestures. “They are literally changing what’s happening with their bodies. And I think the same process is happening with their minds,” Yim says of his students. “Which means we may have to change the way we teach just to keep up.”

As the MEAM department’s undergraduate curriculum chair, that is exactly what Yim is trying to do. He is not alone. Daniel Koditschek, the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor and chair of the electrical and systems engineering (ESE) department at Penn, has embarked on a similar mission. Along with Joel Weingarten, a visiting lecturer, and Haldun Komsuoglu, a postdoctoral fellow in his lab, Koditschek has completely revamped the introductory ESE course for freshmen, and is now looking further up the chain.

The impetus for change is twofold. First, there are the students. Education experts have no shortage of sobriquets for today’s cohort: digital natives, which seems about right for tech-savvy kids who can make their parents feel like Neanderthals fumbling with a blinking VCR time-display; GenM, signifying either media or multitasking; and perhaps most to the point, the DIG generation, for digital immediate gratification.

“In my own undergrad teaching, I do sense this,” says George Pappas, professor of electrical engineering and director of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Lab. “Google now allows you, if you have a question, to have an immediate answer. In a sense, you kind of see the same sort of philosophy in the classroom. They want an immediate justification, an immediate potential use” for whatever they’re being taught at a given moment. “I definitely feel that it is changing a little bit the culture of the students, and that’s probably going to change the way we educate students.”

The second part of the equation shows why the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) is where teaching methods are being overhauled with such urgency. Simply put, science and technology are advancing so quickly that yesterday’s cutting-edge work is being outsourced to tomorrow’s low-wage assembly lines. Twenty years ago, a skill set built around a very specific area of technical expertise could guarantee an engineer a rewarding career. Now, as everything from biological circuitry to molecular computing is poised to radically transform the field, it’s almost impossible to predict what professionals will need to know. In a 2001 essay titled “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” inventor and author Raymond Kurzweil famously argued that not only is technological change clocking in at an exponential rate, but the exponent itself is growing exponentially. In Yim and Koditschek’s estimation, that means today’s students need to be prepared for technologies that don’t yet exist.

“Some vast fraction of what we know today is going to be so different technically tomorrow, five years from now, that we can’t afford to teach the children any specific set of facts, beyond very basic math and physics and chemistry,” Koditschek declares. “So what we must teach, in some sense, is the process of innovation, the process of creation.”

 

Rachel Rothman whips open a textbook. In her hand is a scrap of paper bearing a problem whose answer will yield the first number of the locker’s combination code:

(x • 10) – 2, where x is the Nusset number for fully developed laminar flow in a tube with rectangular cross section 1:2

Another threesome hunches over a laptop where a Google search has called up a web page titled “Young Modules of Elasticity in Metals.” Across the hall in the General Motors lab, competitors have dialed up the MEAM 211 class website to sift through its archive of lecture notes. Meanwhile, at a neighboring computer workstation, a third team arranges the symbols of a visual programming language into a long sequence and zaps it into the memory of a Lego robot by means of a wireless remote. Soon the device is navigating on tank treads to the end of a long aluminum tube, where it activates a magnet to fetch a vial of liquid—one secret ingredient down, four to go.

Rothman, who claims not to have gone to sleep before 4:30 a.m. during the last 10 days, is plugging away on the last number of the combination lock along with Anthony Haney EAS’08 and Matt MacMillan EAS’09. They nail the final solution and Rothman looks up from a scientific calculator to address her embedded reporter. “Whatever you do, don’t paint me as the dumb blonde,” she says. By the time her team opens their locker, they’re a few minutes behind the leaders, but at least they get the door open smoothly. When Yim caught sight of another group wrestling with their own lock, he had felt the need to step in with a bit of advice from technology’s dark ages.

“Your answer is correct,” he told them, “but you have to swivel the lock in the other direction, right?”

For anyone who came of age during a time when an open-book test was beyond the hopes of the average freshman, the spectacle of students grabbing information from any resource at their fingertips—or thumb tips, as the case may be—can be a little disorienting. But if Michael Carchidi, a senior lecturer in MEAM, has ever felt that way, his face doesn’t betray it when Rothman barges into his office on the second floor of Towne. As students run up and down the hallway outside his door, their flip-flop sandals thwapping against the marble, Carchidi interrupts his work as though the appearance of three panting, uninvited guests is as routine as his morning coffee. These ones have a burning desire to work out the torques in a system of rigid bodies. Downstairs, there’s a multi-hinged contraption they will need to manipulate in just the right way in order to bag their first quarry. Carchidi spends 15 minutes helping them. Only halfway into the group exercise does he say, “Oh, this must be Professor Yim’s treasure hunt.”

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