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  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Fields of Fuel - By Bethany Halford
Higher Ambitions - By Alvin P. Sanoff
The Burden of Plagiarism - By Thomas K. Grose

REFRACTIONS: Identifying Ourselves - By Henry Petroski
LAST WORD: Gender Bias in Academe - By Alice Merner Agogino

Piecing It All Together: The Learning Factory provides engineering students with a more hands-on learning experience. By Lynne Shallcross
Book Review: The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives - Reviewed By Robin Tatu
YEAR OF DIALOGUE: A Conversation With a Center- By Karl A. Smith
On Campus: Winning Combination - By Lynne Shallcross

TEACHING TOOLBOX - Piecing It All Together: The Learning Factory provides engineering students with a more hands-on learning experience. By Lynne ShallcrossPiecing It All Together: The Learning Factory provides engineering students with a more hands-on learning experience. By Lynne Shallcross - ILLUSTRATION BY STUART BRADFORD  


A Penn State student removes a completed part from the rapid prototyping machine.Most weekends, you can hear NPR’s Car Talk on the radio in John Lamancusa’s woodworking shop. The hosts offer insights on technology and cars and have a knack for making complex technical concepts understandable, Lamancusa says. But a 2001 Car Talk broadcast sticks in his mind for a different reason. “Engineers don’t know squat about how to do anything,” one of the hosts said. That really got Lamancusa, a professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, thinking.

“That seems to be a popular perception these days,” Lamancusa says. Engineers know plenty, that’s hardly debatable. But while today’s computer-educated engineering students come out of school armed with plenty of theory, they don’t have as much hands-on experience as engineering students a half-century ago. For more than 10 years, Lamancusa’s been hard at work adding the practical side back into engineering education. Lamancusa is director of Penn State’s Learning Factory, a place where students get a taste of the real world of engineering—one that can’t be found in a textbook, one that offers real projects from real companies. It’s a place where students “learn about engineering by doing,” he says. And since 1995, from maximizing the efficiency of frosting Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts to designing a neonatal chest movement sensor, the students have been doing just that.

The Learning Factory program began as a collaboration among faculty at Penn State, the University of Washington (UW) and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez (UPRM), along with researchers from Sandia National Labs and 36 industry partners. The goal was to give undergraduate engineering students a first-hand experience in design, manufacturing and business. The idea has come a long way, now with successful Learning Factories at each of the three institutions and a concept that’s reached 10,000 students and 200 companies in the United States and Latin America.

A team of students designed, built and raced this vehicle in the Formula SAE competition. They finished first in design and acceleration against 140 worldwide entries.The National Academy of Engineering honored Lamancusa and the four other Learning Factory founders with the 2006 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, a $500,000 award established in 2001 to “recognize new modalities and experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders.” Half of the award money went to Penn State, and half was divided between the five team members, who donated their shares back to their home institutions. The cross-institutional team that created the Learning Factory included Lamancusa; Jens Jorgensen, who directed the Learning Factory at UW and is now retired; Lueny Morell, former UPRM professor, now director of Hewlett-Packard University Relations for Latin America; Allen Soyster, former industrial and manufacturing engineering department head at Penn State, now dean of engineering at Northeastern; and José Zayas-Castro, former professor at UPRM, now professor and chair of industrial and management systems engineering at the University of South Florida.

The concept of the Learning Factory had its roots in something called the Ben Franklin Partnership—a program that began in the 1980s and was designed to keep manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania through universities and industry working together. Penn State engineering graduate students racked up about 70 projects with companies from the 1980s to the early ’90s. Shortly thereafter came a Clinton administration initiative through the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the Technology Investment Program, aimed at encouraging schools to focus on manufacturing-related education. Soyster says Penn State’s participation in the Ben Franklin Partnership gave the College of Engineering a base of experience to deserve a grant. “We’d already been in the business,” he says. NSF agreed. In 1993, the team won a grant for $2.75 million, which allowed for the establishment of Learning Factories at each of the three schools under the banner of the Manufacturing Engineering Education Partnership.

The team members say they jumped on board the Learning Factory project because all felt that hands-on, real-world training was sorely lacking in engineering education. Fifty or more years ago, people studied engineering because they liked tinkering with things and had experience building or working on the farm, Lamancusa says. “Nowadays students don’t really understand the applications. So we’re trying to teach them the underlying science for things they don’t even understand on a physical basis. If you don’t have a practical use for knowledge or cannot see how it applies to reality, it gets forgotten.”

Each school took a different slant in creating its own Learning Factory, and each also created its own minor, such as Penn State’s product realization minor. UW based its Learning Factory out of the mechanical engineering department and offers students an injection molding cell, engineering prototype lab, product dissection lab and design lab. At UPRM, students gain experience in the engineering needs of the local industry, which is strongly based in electronics and pharmaceuticals. In 2002, Hewlett-Packard donated a $2.4 million production line for the UPRM students to work on.

At Penn State, most students find their way into the Learning Factory through something called the Industry Project Clinic. For months before the start of a semester, Lamancusa works with companies to bring real-life projects into the Learning Factory for students to work on as their senior capstone design projects. At the Project Kickoff event, companies pitch the projects to students, who then bid on them and are assigned to the projects in teams. For the entire semester, students work on everything from defining the problem to constructing a solution to coming up with a business plan for it. Each company pays a $2,500 fee—and the only guarantee is that the students will give it their best shot. Over the past 12 years, more than 3,000 Penn State engineering students have created more than 600 projects with 140 companies, including Kellogg, Wal-Mart, FedEx and Boeing.

Bill Grauer, senior manager of Boeing V/STOL Wind Tunnel and vice president of the Learning Factory’s Industry Advisory Board, says students who come out of the Learning Factory are clearly better equipped for an engineering career. “One thing we’ve found with engineering graduates from any university is a lack of hands-on ability and training,” Grauer says. “Whether you’re building a space shuttle or a Pop-Tart machine, you need engineers with practical, hands-on experience. The Learning Factory provides that opportunity to those students, and it’s really one of the best programs we’ve found anywhere.”


Although the Industry Project Clinic brings in most of the students, all students in Penn State’s College of Engineering can walk through the door and use the Learning Factory facilities, provided they take the training classes first. In the 3,500 square-foot facility, which includes a design studio and machining and welding areas, the students can work on a project for class or an invention they’ve dreamed up—any project is welcome, as long as it’s course- or education-related, Lamancusa says.

Open access to the Learning Factory is very important to Lamancusa. He refers to the factory as an “engineer’s sandbox,” a place where students “can come in and make a mess and learn from it.” Allowing all students of any engineering discipline to work in the Learning Factory gets students accustomed to cross-disciplinary work. What Lamancusa says he sees are civil engineering students interested in what electrical engineering students are doing, offering suggestions to one another and learning from one another. “The amount of learning that happens that way is not to be discounted,” he says.

In fact, that kind of learning is encouraged. Simply finding the solution for a real-life industry project isn’t the only thing that’s emphasized in the Learning Factory. “Soft skills,” like communication and teamwork among students of different disciplines, get the spotlight, too. For an example of how that works, the students need to look no farther than their professors, the founders of the Learning Factory, who overcame cultural differences among the individual schools as well between academia and industry. That’s something Morell is very proud of. “In order for us to be examples in teamwork for our students, we needed to experience that—we needed to be a good team,” she says. And indeed they were. Their ability to work well together is what the Learning Factory creators point to as the reason for its success. “We had a great team of people as part of this development, and we knew what we wanted to accomplish,” Lamancusa says. “And we were persistent in trying to make it happen.” Soyster agrees. “When you get good people together with a good project, it doesn’t take any amount of leadership to make it happen.”

Gordon Award winners or not, this group is not content to sit back and relax. For more than five years, team members have been conducting workshops and sharing the Learning Factory concept and curriculum throughout the United States and Latin America. An initiative called Engineering for the Americas spawned from one of these workshops in Brazil in 1998 and is now supported by the Organization of American States, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and Hewlett-Packard, among others. Under that banner, Morell and Lamancusa are sharing the Learning Factory model as well as best practices for engineering education in this hemisphere and around the world.

Over the phone from Panama, where she’s giving yet another workshop, Morell reflects on how what began as a relatively small collaboration between three schools and industry could end up affecting the way engineering is taught across the globe. “The lasting legacy would be practice learning—give it an importance in engineering education,” she says. “Theory is not enough.”

Lynne Shallcross is associate editor of Prism.




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American Society for Engineering Education