There's a thing about engineers: they tend to think that every solution should involve a motor.
So, Bill Keat, who taught a sophomore seminar, “Impossible Missions,” this fall was thrilled to see the ingenious (and non-motorized) solutions that came from the minds of the non-engineers who made up the majority of the class.
In one challenge during the term, students were asked to produce a design that would deliver golf balls into the top of a five-foot plastic pipe. One non-engineering member of a group came up with the simplest approach of all – helium balloons. “I never anticipated that they would use anything but standard engineering solutions,” Keat said.
“This was the first time I'd taught outside of engineering,” said Keat, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “But it really showed how engineers – and everyone else – can benefit from a multi-disciplinary team.”
Keat admits to high stress levels several times during the term, particularly when the students had to face the roadblocks that are de rigueur to those in Steinmetz Hall. “Engineers are more used to their designs not working on the first try, and so I thought I might have a rebellion on my hands,” he said. But the non-engineers invariably rose to the occasion.
“They always reminded us that even though it's a technological world, it always needs creative thinking.”
At the end of the term, the Union students presented their final design projects to a most discerning group: Chrissy Harper's third graders from Craig School in Niskayuna. It was the third time the groups had met. Previously – at Craig – the Union students quizzed the third graders about the kinds of toys they like. Star Wars, Pokemon, Harry Potter and the Ipod figured heavily in many designs. The youngsters fired questions at the Union students and rated their work, which would figure in their grade for the class.
Keat said the exercise gave the Union students a chance to interact with customers and learn to meet their needs. For the Union students, the day was as much about presentation as about design. Many wore masks from the students' favorite shows to keep the students' attention. Fidgeting was at a minimum, and questions were spirited.
For Brett Huntley '09, a psychology major, Keat's class offered a valuable look at engineering. “You have students here who have never been exposed to engineers.”
Recalling the helium balloon solution to the golf ball challenge, Lane Caffaro '07, a mechanical engineering major, said the class opened him to new possibilities. “I never would have thought of that.”Read More