Mountaintop Projects drive students to think creatively, work collaboratively

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Lehigh’s Mountaintop Project completed a second successful run this past summer, more than tripling the amount of students that participated the previous summer.

Commonly known as simply “Mountaintop,” the project got its start in the summer of 2013 after a generous donation from Lehigh alumnus and Urban Outfitters co-founder Scott Belair, ’69, among other benefactors. After the renovation of two buildings on campus formerly owned by Bethlehem Steel and the development of a vision for the project, it was ready to take flight.

That vision was to have open-ended, student-driven projects where creativity would thrive and interdisciplinary boundaries would be broken, said Alan Snyder, vice president and associate provost of research and graduate studies. Faculty members act as mentors and may suggest or direct students toward a project, but the students ultimately dictate their own direction and main goals.

“One thing we’ve discovered is the value of having students mixed according to their education,” Snyder said. “They’re all in different places in accumulated learning and comfort with material. Everybody has something they can offer.

“A grad student offers specific skills, research resources, familiarity and confidence, whereas a sophomore might ask what may seem to be a naïve question, but one which opens discussion. Everybody needs to learn how to teach and to listen to questions from people who don’t know as much as you know.”

With more than 100 students from diverse majors and almost 30 faculty mentors working on more than 20 projects, Snyder’s vision of mixing disciplines and skill sets most certainly became reality.

Alec Entress, ’16, was interested in researching and setting up a campus-wide composting system. An Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences (IDEAS) major concentrating in energy engineering and sustainable development, Entress started researching his project during the 2014 spring semester.

“It was difficult trying to keep focused and move forward within the context of a classroom when you have life going on outside, too,” Entress said. “I’m very much a one-track mind person. I like focusing on one thing.”

Entress’ time at Mountaintop over the summer allowed him to do just that as a member of the Green Resource Recovery of Waste project, or GR2OW project. GR2OW composted leftover food from the Brodhead dining hall, built a robot that measures the health of a compost pile and made plans to implement their system across the university.

“My favorite part was the group dynamics,” Entress said. “It was awesome working with other people because everyone was a co-creator. Instead of a boss, everyone had their own roles.”

Liz Phillips, ’15, worked on the Shapeshifter project, aimed at creating a playhouse that would change shape. The project will be entered into a competition in December. As to the open-ended nature of the program, Phillips said at first she expected to function in a classroom setting, but that was not the case. She said her group ultimately gave themselves the permission to make decisions in order to complete project tasks.

Snyder said he wished to inspire a scholarly motivation within these students, the same type of motivation that drives professors.

“What gets your professors up in the morning are things they don’t understand,” Snyder said. “That motivation to understand things you don’t and to work for and see the value in that is valuable, precious and important in the lives of people to whom we’re going to turn over the world.”

Entress said he learned more about electrical engineering in one week with the Mountaintop program than in class.

“I was able to use skills I learned in class, but took them even further,” he said. “It makes you question the ways you’re used to being educated. When you’re seeking the knowledge, it’s so much more worthwhile than someone feeding it to you.”

Phillips agreed that working with people in various disciplines is challenging, but allows students to create something that would otherwise not be possible.

The Mountaintop dynamic may one day be incorporated into regular semesters, Snyder said, but for now, they are simply seeking to expand their summer enrollment and to gather suggestions from previous participants to improve upon the program.

Applications for the summer of 2015 will be available this October.

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