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On Campus

Falling for Plato

While studying for her bachelor's degree in applied mathematics, Yvonne Yancey stumbled across Plato. Yancey, a senior in the college of engineering and applied science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discovered the seminal philosopher's work in the Herbst Program of Humanities. Reading Plato has led her to seek out the works of Nietzsche, C.S. Lewis, and Voltaire on her own. "Now that I've started reading philosophy I just can't stop," she says.

Program Director Wayne Ambler says Herbst is based on an approach to education that stresses engaging the complicated questions confronting humankind as they appear in the great books of Western literature. "Is there a purpose to human life? Is there a God," are two such questions Ambler says. The program, he adds, is part of a general move away from the departmental specialization that tends to seal off engineering from literature and the arts. "Students should be able to follow a question to wherever it leads," he says.

Founded in 1989 by an endowment from chemical engineering alumnus Clarence Herbst, Jr., the program is a two-class sequence that satisfies the college's humanities requirement. The first class has a fixed curriculum and allows students to, Ambler says, read "a smattering of the great books" of fiction, poetry, and philosophy. The second course moves beyond the study of specific texts to the completion of student projects that consider underlying themes and ideas.

After completing projects on "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy and modern and contemporary literature, Yancey found she wasn't quite ready to leave the humanities. Last year, she founded the Herbst club, an informal, Friday-night discussion group modeled after the college's program. Yancey credits her experience in the club's and program's small discussion groups with helping her feel more comfortable speaking in class and helping her meet students from other disciplines within the college. Regarding any insight she's gained, Yancey says that "it's amazing how close math, design, engineering, and philosophy are to each other."


Knowing WHen to HOld and When to FOld

You wouldn't think in a class called Introduction to Industrial and Systems Engineering that students would have to learn origami—the ancient Japanese art of folding paper. But that's exactly what's expected of them at the University of Florida. "The Origami Project: The Tortoise and the Hare" is designed to teach sophomores and early-junior engineering students about the teamwork and cooperation necessary to succeed in industrial and systems engineering.

Students are grouped into teams of three or four and required to make and "sell" as many paper tortoises and hares as possible in 25 minutes. Prices for "buying" materials and "renting" equipment are set as are the prices "consumers" will pay for tortoises and hares. To incorporate some consideration of real-life production tradeoffs, tortoises command a higher price but take longer to make than hares. Similarly, wages are set for the "workers" folding, and there are quality control experts checking every tortoise and hare. The currency in this economy is candy, and teams are paid their "profits" in sugary confections. The winning team is the one with the highest profit per team member.

The class, taught by industrial and systems engineering Professor Richard Francis, uses origami to give an overview of the concepts and ideas involved in an industrial engineering career. He says there is no simple icon, like a bridge for civil engineering, to represent industrial and systems engineering. "It's all about coordination and planning. How do you represent that?" Perhaps a tortoise and a hare?


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