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Student Experiences

During the summer of 2013, a number of Lehigh students and faculty engaged in a set of Mountaintop pilot programs. For these projects, faculty mentors identified subject areas, problems, possibilities, and modes of investigation or expression, but students were responsible for determining their goals and the details of their work. Students and faculty who participated in this summer's pilot projects have called the experience one of their most rewarding in their time at Lehigh, illustrating the impact that an open-ended and self-directed approach to learning can have.

In Students' Words | Project Descriptions

Thinking about the learning environment we could create at Mountaintop began with the recognition that mentored, open-ended intellectual endeavors can provide critical formative and integrative experiences for students. We suggested that these should be conducted in an environment that promotes collaboration and exchange, and emphasizes intimate connections between learning and doing. We suggested that students should view the entire university including their peers and the faculty as sources of challenge and guidance as they recognize limits to their knowledge and strive to address those limits.

The most striking observations by both students and mentors from the 2013 projects involved the levels of independence provided to students and the ways in which those students met the expectations associated with such independence. As mentors Michael Kramp and Julia Maserjian noted,

"As educators, we often like the idea of our students experiencing freedom, taking creative action, and exploring their own ideas, but such freedom is inevitably difficult to initiate and harder to maintain. The Mountaintop Pilot Program created an environment in which we as educators could communicate this freedom to the students at the beginning of the project; we then felt quite comfortable and confident reminding them of this freedom.  Indeed, this freedom became synonymous with the students' responsibility and accountability to each other and the final outcome of the project.  The freedom experienced by the Mountaintop students convinced us of two important features: students will rise to the occasion and be accountable if this freedom is both consistent and sincere; and students will produce creative work if allowed to fully embrace their intellectual freedom."

Both mentors and students commented on ways in which both students' inclinations and the subject matter at hand affected students' decisions. Kramp, whose students produced an award-winning documentary film on the first women among Lehigh's English faculty, noted that their students organized and interpreted observations in a manner that was entirely legitimate yet very different from what he would have done with the same material. To the students, this was a lesson in allowing the subject of study rather than the researcher to determine directions. Student Laura Casale noted, "Many of our decisions depended not on our plans, but on our subjects. We couldn't control what they wanted to share and what they didn't want to share. In my opinion this was a really great thing. What I realized was that the four women's stories were what had to drive our film, even if it was in a direction that we didn't initially plan on taking."

Indeed, the Mountaintop work changed the way the students learned. Student Edward Puzycki commented, "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.'" Student Connor Tench compared his summer at Mountaintop to his research experience at another university, where his faculty mentor felt obliged to provide him with a "good project."  Here, his mentor, Prof. Brian Davison, told him that he would determine his own project. Connor valued the opportunity: "I loved that I got to ask my own questions, instead of a faculty member telling me what to do to reach an already-established answer." Faculty mentors Rick Weisman and Mark Orrs reported that even those students who began with the expectation of being handed both goals and steps to attain them ultimately came to appreciate the reality of working on open-ended problems.

Students also noted the importance of time and space in making for a different, and highly productive, summer experience. The ability to concentrate on one endeavor for a significant period of time made the experience notably different from a typical semester of commitments to several classes and additional activities. Students also noted the importance of owning their workspace for the durations of their projects. Often, when student teams work together, their materials go back in their backpacks and students go back to their individual places, between group meetings. Allocation of project spaces allowed students to come and go according to their individual work habits and inspirations, leaving their contributions for their colleagues to see and incorporate.


Laura Casale '15
'First Four' Project

To me, the Mountaintop projects are a real testament to—and example of—the opportunities available here for Lehigh students.

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 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 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.

Meghan Barwick '15
'First Four' 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 have had the opportunity to practice what I want to be a part of my career after graduating.

Penn Scott '14
Xiphias 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 others' 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.

Lisa Glover, Graduate Student
Creative 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 masters 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, moveable '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 3-D 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.


Creativity Space
Mentors: John Ochs (MEM), Lisa Getzler-Lynn (Baker Institute)

Technology Entrepreneurship students undertook development of a modular creativity space to support their own graduate program and others. As one of their mentors noted, this was the only team working on the space rather than in the space. The team was asked to develop an innovator's workstation in support of 50 IPD teams of 6 undergraduates in each team and 90 Technical Entrepreneurship students, each using the cell as their primary workspace. In addition, the team was asked to propose renovation to the space to accommodate these cells in innovative configurations, and to consider how the space might be configured to support the academic requirements of both the IPD and TE programs.

The First Four: A Documentary Film
Mentors: Michael Kramp (English), Julia Maserjian (LTS)

The First Four is an interdisciplinary documentary film project that investigates the first four female faculty members hired in the English Department at Lehigh University: Elizabeth Fifer, Barbara Traister, Rosemary Mudhenk, and Rosemarie Arbur. Students worked over a six-week period to produce an initial draft of a documentary film. 

The film project combined intense archival research, primary interviews with living subjects, and creative design elements with the planning, making, and editing of the film. All three of these elements were essential to both the completion of the film project as well as the experimentation of the pilot program. The archival research forced the students to work individually as curious thinkers; the primary interviews allowed the students to interact with living subjects, develop interpersonal relationships, and practice their ethical skills of responsible research; and the design of the film provided the students with the opportunity to collaborate.

The film won Best Short at the Lehigh Valley Filmmaker Festival in November, 2013.

Mitigating Tuberculosis: Social Services and Biotechnology
Mentors: Vassie Ware (Biol Sci) and Kelly Austin (Sociology & Anthropology)

This project brought Science Education Alliance (SEA) students together with Global Citizenship students for collaborative work on strategies to mitigate the global impact of tuberculosis. Biological Sciences students isolated and characterized viruses that attack bacteria that are readily found in soil, as part of a large national effort to identify those that can be active against TB, while Global Studies students engaged in study of provision of health services in communities in less-developed regions. Together, the student groups engaged in interactive workshops to discuss their research, participated in seminars presented by experts in the field, participated in forums under the auspices of Lehigh's HHMI-sponsored Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute, and connected with industry leaders in the global health division at Becton Dickinson. The combined project enabled Global Studies students to "get their gloves wet," Biological Science students to better appreciate the challenges that remain even when having a therapy in hand, and both groups of students to see the value of being conversant in each others' areas of expertise.

Smart Spaces
Mentors: Dan Lopresti (CSE) and Brian Davison (CSE)

This project involved hands-on exploration of physical spaces that respond to the presence or behaviors of people within them. Individuals and groups developed projects involving aspects of providing engineered systems with sophisticated sensory or presentation capabilities. One student worked to develop software for the difficult problem of identifying speech topics in noisy, multi-speaker environments. Another student worked on a system to classify streams of Twitter messages as a prelude to a system that would filter and display messages based on characteristics such as the moods or attitudes they communicate. Another built a system to detect the proper tempo of a piece of music from a person's hand movements, as musicians would do in following a conductor. And a group of students worked on enabling "quad-copter" aircraft to navigate a space using only a video image as guidance.

Technology for Developing Communities
Mentors: Rick Weisman (CEE), Mark Orrs(Sustainable Development Program/Political Science)

This project involved creation of technologies for housing and other fundamental needs for communities in the developing world. In designing for these environments, physical and human resources and supporting infrastructure are typically very different from what can be assumed in developed countries, and the stakes for users in adoption of new technologies can be particularly high.  Understanding the user, important to any successful design, becomes a particularly rich learning experience in and of itself. Students pursued three projects: One studying use of soil-filled rice bags in construction of durable housing for refugees, one involving development of a curriculum for use of 3D printers by students in developing countries, and a third involving design of an integrated system for crop production and water filtration.

Garage Project: Xiphias
Students: Wallace Scott, James Suh, Miguel Roman
Mentors: Pat Farrell (Provost/MEM), Wes Heis (AAD), Van Dobson (Facilities & Campus Planning)

The Xiphias concept vehicle is an independent student effort to predict the evolution of technical and creative performance automobiles. The goal is to develop various automotive engineering projects and integrate them into a professional-grade design package. Through these projects, which include research in aerodynamics, support structures, and powertrain systems, the group set out to create a product that is both beautiful and relevant to the future of cars. During the summer, the group worked on CAD design and production of scaled 3D printed models.

Garage Project: Responsive Textiles
Student: Dominique Brown
Mentor: Lucy Gans (AAD)

Ms. Brown's long-term goals involve design of garments that are responsive to the wearer and to the environment. She devoted her summer work to experimentation with materials that respond to heat (thermochromatic) and light (photochromatic) as well as miniature computing and control components for incorporation into garments.