Digital Natives in Tomorrow’s Classroom

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Today’s Web-washed, text-messaging, technology-tethered undergraduates don’t learn the way even their recent forebears did. Meanwhile, professors in the School of Engineering want to make them masters of technologies yet to be invented. When the two sides meet in the classroom, all the rules have changed.

By Trey Popp | Illustration by Barry Bruner

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.

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.”

“When I went to school, I watched TV,” Yim reflects. “You went to lectures, you learned things by someone telling you. It’s what I call the push model: teachers just push the information into you. Students don’t do that now. They grew up on the Internet, on videogames—they look at and do what they want to do. They go on the web and click something … This is called the pull model: students pull what they want. So we have to change the way we teach to suit those kids, because that’s the way they’re brought up. The old ways don’t work as well.”

The best place to see the new ways is in one of the lab modules Yim and Koditschek have refashioned. Although the two professors work in separate realms, many of their innovations have run along parallel tracks.

Engineering-class labs used to be built around what Yim calls “giant setups” whose physical infrastructures were sufficiently expensive to make it difficult to change them from year to year. Students would observe phenomena their textbooks had prepped them for and write a report more or less by the numbers. Compared to the research-grade work their professors spent the rest of their time on, these exercises were, in a word, boring, but at least made for easy scoring. Individual students were likely graded on a curve, and they trusted that after a few years of learning by rote, everything would add up to a set of marketable skills.

As Joel Weingarten, whom Koditschek largely credits with reinventing the freshman ESE lab, puts it, “Traditional engineering education sort of just treats students like filing cabinets. It fills them up with lots of data, they spit it back out on tests, and they do that on 20 or 30 disjoined core courses.” For the approximately two-thirds of engineering majors who don’t drop out before reaching the end, he adds, “that was great—people can design circuits or build bridges. But those jobs have mostly been automated or sent overseas.

“So the question we started with,” he adds, “was, What does it mean to be a 21st-century engineer?

What they came up with was a substantially different picture than the old stereotype of engineer as technician and organization man. “Leaving aside what the kids are interested in or willing to do,” Koditschek says, “what we think they need to be able to do is create wealth, create knowledge.” His goal, in other words, is to produce entrepreneurs ready to join what economist Richard Florida has dubbed “the creative class.” From product design to next-generation computer hardware, tomorrow’s engineering jobs are as likely to be based in a one-car garage as at a Boeing plant. NASA’s recent decision to turn to amateur inventors—like Peter Homer, an underemployed community-center director who nabbed a $200,000 prize for building a better space glove last year (he commandeered the family living room in addition to the garage)—is one indication of how traditional engineering career paths are changing.

In the redesigned lab modules, out went the “giant setups.” Indeed, to some extent, out went the setups altogether. “I’m putting more of the infrastructure on the students,” says Yim. “I’ll say, Here’s the project, you have to build it.” In addition to satisfying the undergraduates’ thirst for immediate application, this maximizes the professors’ flexibility to keep up with new technology from one year to the next.

Another thing that went by the wayside was the single-minded emphasis on individual performance. Group collaboration has taken its place. No doubt this plays to the expectations of students who came of age as the team-learning trend became widespread in American primary education, but it’s not just a capitulation. “Individual inspiration and insight is still crucial,” says Sampath Kannan, associate dean of SEAS, “but successful research and innovation increasingly happens through joint efforts across diverse teams, often across cultures and time zones.”

This is changing the way students are graded. In Yim’s class, there’s no explicit curve. Some years everyone works hard and a lot of A’s end up on transcripts. Other years, there may be very few. Yim even pushes some of the evaluation itself back onto the students. In one class, for example, teams had to figure out how to mount a camera on a moving bicycle such that the bouncing and jostling could be neutralized to create a steady video picture. When different teams developed different strategies, Yim made each pursue its chosen path—even the ones he knew to be fruitless. Learning to recognize and learn from failure, he believes, is an essential skill. Not all the students appreciated the exercise—“They hated it,” Yim recalls—but for many the initial disgruntlement turned into enthusiasm when at the end they had to appraise the reports generated by other teams.

“I expected them to read [the reports] and then just rank them: one, two, three,” Yim says. “But they all went in depth and said, This group is good because of x, y, and z, and I ranked this guy better because of this and that. It actually turned out to be a really valuable experience for the students who graded.” Eventually, Yim would like to enable his students (and/or recent graduates) to vote on the curriculum itself, getting them more invested in the whole process.

Yet there’s more to the story than converting lab modules from the old, formulaic model to an inquiry-based, you-build-it approach. This is where Koditschek’s introductory ESE course comes in. When Koditschek came to Penn from the University of Michigan in 2005, with Weingarten and Komsuoglu in tow, they brought along a remarkable robot. Its name was RHex, it was inspired by a cockroach, and it had just attracted a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

RHex is a six-legged device whose computer “brain” is on par with a consumer-grade laptop. Its 20-pound body is a few inches longer than a college dictionary, but about as wide and as thick. Its design incorporates some basic features of everyone’s least favorite kitchen invader. As Komsuoglu points out, “Cockroaches are a very simple machine by itself and can demonstrate high mobility over highly unstable, unstructured environments. And they achieve that not by really intelligently thinking about where they put their feet and how they propel themselves, but by relying on their passive mechanical infrastructure, along with some well-trained excitation signals.” RHex is an electromechanical version of that biological model. With the right programming, it can navigate varying terrain under its own command without requiring physical modifications as the topography changes. The robot can walk, run, leap, tumble, slide, travel upright on two legs, and even swim.

“This was a machine,” says Koditschek, “that up until two years ago, was at the very far reaches of the research enterprise in our laboratory and a few labs across the country.” For freshmen ESE students at Penn, it became something else: a next-generation textbook that was the focal point of their lab work.

In terms of immediate gratification, it’s hard to imagine something with greater potential to motivate the Millennial Generation. Couple that with the demotion of the actual textbook to mere recommended status, and you’re talking about a considerable break with convention. “It’s an interesting situation,” Koditschek observes. “Events in the research domain moved enough in parallel with the needs of very early undergraduate curriculum, that this solution for research was, magically, exactly what we thought would be appropriate and useful for undergraduate laboratories.”

Under Weingarten’s supervision, students start by programming a version of RHex to perform simple tasks. (Komsuoglu developed the educational platform that makes much of this possible.) Gradually their projects become more and more involved. Last year their robots scaled the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum in homage to Rocky. Student teams also programmed dance routines, choreographing as many as 2,000 individual leg movements to tunes ranging from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to the raps of Kanye West. They wrote optimization codes aimed at getting the robot to teach itself how to move faster—an artificial-intelligence endeavor—and turned $20 budgets at Home Depot into a boggling variety of alternative leg designs.

“There’s a lot we don’t understand about these machines—in fact, far more that we don’t than we do,” says Koditschek. “There’s a tremendous amount of empirical work that needs to be done. What would happen if you change this shape? What would happen if you change this compliance or that compliance? We don’t have the answers to those questions, so if the undergraduates are interested, they can actually come to the horizons of research very quickly, without a lot of tools.

“Kids don’t want to just listen to us talk about what mathematics is useful and what programming techniques are useful,” he continues. “They want to actually see if it’s true, or see how it’s true. If you confront people early on with challenging laboratory environments, where it’s clear that there’s no right answer—that we don’t know what the right answer is—I think it sets the whole framework for four years of inquiry-based education, critical thinking, lifelong learning skills, and collaborative interdisciplinary work.”

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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