PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
Putting the Fun Back into Fundamentals

by Missy Cummings

Kids today! Like so many of my colleagues, I am baffled by both the attitudes and appearance of the young men and women in the classroom, and I am especially concerned about the lack of preparedness and student engagement—the slack-jawed gaze, the students who sleep in class, or who complain that the material is boring. To many, college—and especially engineering courses—are just plain no fun.

Photograph courtesy of Virginia TechTrying to inspire college students today is difficult and sometimes disheartening. For engineering professors, the problem is even more acute when students also lack even the most basic reasoning skills. I told a class of incoming freshmen to estimate the maximum number of people that could fit inside a new Volkswagen Beetle, hoping it might spark their interest on both an academic and social level. The results were both enlightening and a little disconcerting.

The answers, complete with formulas and diagrams, ranged from three people (despite the advertised capacity of four) to a whopping 112 full-grown men and women. The vast majority of my students gave me an answer between 30 and 40, which they arrived at by simply dividing the interior volume of the car (85 cubic feet) by the volume of an average man and woman. Most never stopped to consider that not all of the interior space is usable, and when I tried to explain this error in logic, they seemed confused until I explained "What you are saying then is that you could fit about 35 people into this car if you ground them up into blood and mangled flesh." After this Stephen King-inspired response they were engaged and understood.

Some students had clearly thought about the problem, and also had a little fun with their answers. Many were concerned about the possible lack of air and wanted to provide oxygen masks, while others clearly stated that breathing was not a critical issue. One tried to justify the maximum use of the volume by stating that the participants were "contortionists," and another changed the molecular structure of the human body to be similar to that of Jell-O. My favorite assumptions were from students who invented their own mathematical constants, which they dubbed "scrunching measurements" or a "cram factor."

I then offered the class extra credit if they located a new Beetle and actually tested their hypotheses. After cramming and scrunching, one group actually squeezed in 21 people, which was only three fewer than the world record.

After this interactive experiment, my students were definitely more engaged. I would like to think it was because of the true hands-on learning, but more than likely it was a result of the students getting to know each other better. And despite the fun and the cohesiveness that resulted, the project did not really change the fact that they struggled with realistic answers. As the semester closed, I still had many students who reported results that were off by several orders of magnitude. On the last day of class I asked them if a person would be killed if hit by a penny dropped from the Empire State Building. Without even pausing to think, well over ninety percent said 'yes'. These students are supposed to be the best and brightest—why is it that they struggle with something so basic?

So are incoming students less prepared academically these days? Most engineering professors would no doubt sound a resounding "Aye!" Recent studies suggest that the average weekly study time for high school students is less than four hours and for college students, less than ten. But are the incoming freshmen inherently lazy, or is their apathy due in part to not having an appreciation of the physical world around them?

College students today were weaned on personal computers and video games with high-resolution graphics. How many took things apart and not so successfully put them back together as kids? Most freshmen have no idea what an engineer really does or even that the fields of engineering are quite diverse. When asked why they want to be engineers, many of my students reply, "Because I want to make a lot of money!"

While universities cannot change the underlying motives of entering freshmen, we can at least address the lack of hands-on experience with mechanical items. At Virginia Tech, the College of Engineering constructed an innovative, hands-on laboratory specifically designed for incoming freshmen to learn reverse engineering. The results so far have been very encouraging: the freshmen seem genuinely interested and look forward to coming to the lab, student evaluations praise the course, and enrollment has steadily increased.

Some professors these days often lament their new roles as "edutainers." But as educators and engineers, we must accept that young men and women today are different from earlier generations. They have been entertained and catered to since they were infants, and if we hope to maintain our nation's engineering prowess, we must be attuned to their needs and deficiencies. We must adapt more innovative classroom techniques and, yes, to some degree we must become edutainers. In short, we must show the youth of today that engineering is not just a lot of tedious math and long hours, it is also actually a lot of fun.

    Missy Cummings is a professor of engineering fundamentals at Virginia Tech.