Advanced Initiatives
Before the actual weekends took place, the co-directors of the project -- Professor Marca Lam-Anderson and Dr. Judith Lyczko -- emphasized the problem-solving intellectual excellence of Cooper Union students to Outward Bound, and urged them to select or devise problems that would challenge the students and require them to use technical and "hands-on" skills.
They asked Outward Bound to customize its usual outdoor challenges and experiential learning initiatives to emphasize both gender issues in the classroom and workplace and "hands-on" teamwork skills needed in engineering, both on the site and in the lab.  The two resulting problems surprised everyone.
One was the "Cure for Athlete's Foot in the Lava Pit."  A fifteen foot wide circle is drawn on the ground and the students are told it is filled with molten lava -- they cannot step in it or they must start all over again.  In the center of the circle is a tin can which contains the cure -- the engineering students must get the can using only the ropes provided to them by Outward Bound.
According to Outward Bound, in most cases, the students string a support with the ropes from one side to another, and the smallest participant is suspended over the lava to pick up the can.  However, the Cooper Union engineering students looped and tied the rope in such a manner as to create a circle of rope held and tightened by extensions of rope.  Holding the four ends, they carefully lowered the circle over the can, tightening the ropes and lifting the can up.
At this point, the Outward Bound people smiled, knowing what the students did not.  The real "cure" was inside the can, a Nerf ball which would fall out as soon as the can was lifted.  The students would have to use the time-tested method of suspending someone over the lava pit to pick up the ball.  However, the Cooper students simply tightened their hold on the ropes, turned the can slightly on its side, and, after several attempts, used the tautly-held tipped can to scoop up the Nerf ball.  The Outward Bound team looked on in amazement.  No one had ever solved the problem in this way.
However, successful as this solution turned out to be, the debriefing raised a number of issues relevant to engineering and science.  The winning solution was shouted out immediately after the problem was presented and the exciting alternative it offered won the day.  This is not unlike the scientist's shout of "Eureka!" on finding the best answer to a question.  It was innovative, exciting, untraditional, and unexpected -- its enthusiasm carried the day.
Only, and it's a big only -- it was a professor who shouted it out and directed the solution, not a student, and a numberof student team members were sidelined during the actual activity.  Some felt all of the possible plans should have been discussed first, and alternatives then decided.  Others felt that when they offered another way of solving the problem, they weren't listened to.  Still others felt they had not been allowed to participate.  Issues of power and control, as well as authority versus the individual were discussed in the context of leadership, teamwork, and communications.  Looking back on the experience, a student wrote: "I learned that I can change the energy of resentment to positive energy."
A similar problem for the other group -- "The Egg Drop in the Lava Pit" -- required that a blindfolded team member be suspended in a web sling over an egg in a lava pit.  Blindfolded at the very start, he had few ways of knowing exactly what was going on.  His task was to pick up the egg, but he was unable to see it, much less know where he was at any given time.  He had to listen to his teammates and trust them to give him not only the right directions but to oversee his safety in the web sling.
The team had to work together to give clear directions, build a safe sling, and keep it suspended above the lava pit area until the egg was picked up.  In this case, issues of trust, communication, risk-taking, decision-making, and teamwork surfaced.  The student in the sling noted afterwards: "I learned that it is okay to trust people and rely on them and to really work together with one focused goal, and that in the process I don't have to lose my identity."
(go back home)