Once Rothman and her teammates deduce the torques involved in their first challenge, the subsequent obstacles fall considerably faster. It turns out that Carchidi’s strategy involved more theoretical heavy lifting than absolutely necessary, but Haney and MacMillan only figured out the shortcut when the long way around was nearly complete. The dangerous thing about teachers, evidently, is that sometimes they only slow you down.

In short order, the students program their own Lego robot to fetch a vial of liquid, and then race into another lab space to confront another task. It’s the only real give-away of the day. “There is a container measuring .3 and another container measuring .5,” a teaching assistant begins. Rothman interrupts him before he can finish.

“Don’t even tell me the rest!” she shrills. “I can do this. I can do this two different ways!” What she can do is measure out a volume of .4 using the two containers. When asked about the source of her knowledge and confidence, she responds, “Didn’t you see Die Hard 3?”

“Which one was that?”

Three!” Her eyes widen in disbelief. “With a Vengeance!”

The next clue leads to a transparent, palm-sized box made from interlocking pieces of plastic. It’s filled with a yellow liquid, which sloshes around a smaller, partially open cavity containing a tiny slip of paper that will lead to the final challenge. The conundrum is how to extricate the liquid without soaking the paper. The answer turns out to involve protective glasses, a wrench, and the industrial-sized drill in the machine shop.

All of which leads the team to a schematic drawing of a miniature trebuchet, the weapon once used by medieval armies to hurl things over city walls. In the Middle Ages, projectiles commonly included large stones, barrels of burning tar, beehives, and the bodies of failed peace negotiators. Today, it’s a little ball that must land in a bucket three feet away from the launching site. Each team must configure the device’s pivot point and determine how many U.S. quarters are needed to form the counterweight that will power the weapon. Rothman and company split up to maximize their chances, while a trio of competitors unfold a laptop and call up an Excel spreadsheet embedded with trebuchet formulas.

 

As the academic semester was winding down last spring, Yim polled the juniors in the MEAM 347 class that’s been the focus of many of his reforms. True or False, he asked them: I’ve learned more in this lab class than in any other class. “And half of them said true,” he recalls. “This was actually the thing that made me think we needed to do more of this.”

Not all of his colleagues are rushing into pedagogical novelty without qualms. “Each of these changes is made by faculty of the departments,” says Sampath Kannan, “probably in a very contentious and lively faculty meeting.

“There are people who will really work hard to make sure the fundamentals are not compromised. And those voices will be heard, and are part of what keeps us honest, I suppose,” he says, adding, “I myself have been known to take that position. I’m not of the gung-ho, let’s-be-cool camp.”

Nevertheless, Kannan says the curriculum reforms have emerged from a consensus view, and that no one is watering down core concepts. “Not just me, but people like Dan Koditschek and Mark Yim, want to make sure that we don’t scrimp on foundations at all,” he says. “It’s an attempt to get students hooked, but without really sacrificing anything in the end.”

For Christine Massey, a learning specialist at Penn’s Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, that was a proposition worth testing. Freshmen could certainly have fun with robots, but would they still learn as much? With another NSF grant, she helped Koditschek and his colleagues find out.

Systems engineers to the core, the ESE professors initially ran the new lab component as a pilot program for 17 students who volunteered to be guinea pigs. Meanwhile the old version was taught in parallel, enabling a direct comparison of student performance.

There’s no way to account for the possible effects of self-selection by the pilot students (random assignment to each group would have made the data more powerful), but the numbers seem to justify the new approach. Pilot students scored slightly higher on the same midterm exam, and their performance on shared homework problem sets was substantially better (and statistically significant).

Massey says the new course involves a completely different approach to learning than the old “fire hose curriculum,” in which information came thick and fast, and undergraduates paid their dues by absorbing it. She thinks the new way is better.

“The critical question is which kinds of dues are the most important to pay,” she contends. “It’s not the case that the students are spending less time or weren’t working as hard or were doing more fun and squishy kinds of things. In some ways it was more demanding, and they were being asked to pay a kind of dues that typically have not been asked of undergraduates before.”

That may explain why the class has also become something the professors could hardly have expected: a recruiting conduit that’s brought undergraduate manpower into their own research enterprises. “We have two students from the first year, still, and five or six students this summer just working in our lab alone,” Weingarten said in June. “That’s really rare, for freshman to want to get involved—and to be able to contribute.”

Weingarten and Komsuoglu have also tapped some of their erstwhile students for help in their startup company, Sandbox Innovations, through which they hope to take the RHex educational platform national. “It’s what we like to call the textbook of the 21st century,” says Weingarten. “It’s no longer a book.” Employee Sam Russell may be the perfect advertisement. He doesn’t yet have a college degree, but the technical chops he picked up as a freshman in the Penn course are now helping him earn his keep.

Ultimately, those are the kinds of measures that count. Although there is little evidence of a current shortage of engineers in the United States, several trends suggest that the nation’s historical competitive advantage in education is eroding. NSF figures indicate that Western Europe now produces more science and engineering doctoral degrees than North America. China and India are both experiencing phenomenal growth in university-level engineering and technology graduates. In a survey of over 2,000 engineering and technology companies in the United States, researchers from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering found that fully a quarter have at least one key founder who was foreign-born. Similarly, 24 percent of U.S. patent applications in 2006 named foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors—more than triple the rate from just eight years before. “Immigrants are increasingly fueling the growth of U.S. engineering and technology businesses,” the Pratt report concludes, and “[p]reliminary results show that it is the education level of the individuals who make it to the United States that differentiates them.”

In that context, it’s worth taking a deeper look at the high attrition rate among American undergraduate engineering students. “If you look at kids who drop out, it’s not so much that they dropped out because it was too hard or their grades weren’t good,” Massey says. “Certainly there are some students like that, but lots of times what’s happening is you have very talented students who joined the engineering school, and they’re maybe taking the occasional course in another field, and they’re finding it interesting. And the teaching is often better. So some of that dropout is because they find that the teaching in a traditional engineering education is not intellectually exciting. It can be demanding, but it might not be intellectually exciting or creative ... So it’s not just that you’re losing people who can’t cut it—you’re losing the people who have a lot of talent and could go in many directions.”

These are the stakes that motivate Penn’s engineering faculty, who ultimately aim to attract even English and economics majors to their classrooms. “People haven’t really learned what’s afoot here,” says Kannan, but he hopes that word will begin to spread. “In this technology-based society, where technology defines our culture these days, it’s important for all Penn students to get at least some exposure to engineering, I would think. And maybe the changes we’re making will make our courses more accessible, and will be an incentive for everyone to take some of our classes.”

 

A few minutes before the two-hour mark, Rothman, Haney, and MacMillan make it to Yim with all their ingredients in hand. They place a respectable fifth. Before they can knock off for lunch and start cramming for finals again, however, each team has to complete a six-question quiz and get every answer right.

Another threesome confidently hands in their solutions, only to have Yim unexpectedly reject one. They struggle for a few minutes. Someone types something into a computer. Nothing. The students don’t know it, but they’re having a combination-lock moment. To a question that wouldn’t even stump the Hardy Boys (“To see invisible ink written with lemon on paper, you apply ______”), they’ve come up with phenolphthaleine.

“This might work,” Yim tells them, “but it’s not the answer I was looking for.”

They give up. “What is it, then?”

Their professor allows himself an amused smile along with his far less exotic reply. “Heat!” he says, waiting half a beat before adding, “Didn’t you ever see National Treasure?”

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