Students Reflect on the Mountaintop Experience

As Mountaintop 2014 comes to a close, students reflect on the uniqueness of their experiences.

In all, more than 100 students, and their mentors, collaborated on more than 20 projects, including documentaries, sustainable development and engineering initiatives and business creation.

Students talked with Lehigh visual storyteller Stephanie Veto about what Mountaintop has meant to them.


Mountaintop Mentor – Michael Spear

Last week, we profiled the student research projects under the Smart Spaces umbrella. These projects aim to develop intelligent technology for living spaces. Michael Spear, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh, is one of the professors mentoring students on the various projects that fall under Smart Spaces. Here, he tells us why he got involved, what his students are learning and why BIG — is definitely better — at Mountaintop.
Michael Spear Lehigh Mountaintop Mentor

Give us your take/opinion on Mountaintop & the unique experience it provides participating students.

One of the most exciting aspects of Mountaintop is that it provides an opportunity for hands-on learning and putting ideas into practice. In the classroom, it’s easy to overlook how much of a problem has already been defined, designed, and solved, before students even read the assignment. At Mountaintop, students do all of the initial work, instead of just producing the end result. In our project, this means that the students aren’t just figuring out how to make clients talk to existing servers. They are also building the servers and inventing the protocols that the servers will use to listen to the clients. It means that when they build a sensor device, they have to think through issues related to power, reliability, and maintenance. In the classroom, we often don’t get a chance to emphasize these practical aspects of engineering or to require students to build a complete, end-to-end system. But at Mountaintop, these are first-class topics.

The other part of the Mountaintop experience that I think is so fun is that the students can define the scope… and then they have to live with it. There are so many intricacies that arise when you build something that other people have to use and interact with, as opposed to something that a professor asks you to build for a class. In our project, where we are trying to build a physical space that responds to the people inside of it, the students are not allowed to post instructions on the wall, or tell people how to act when they are in the space. The space has to do what the students originally envisioned. It has to be futuristic. It has to be really smart.

A small example of this is that we have a voice-recognition system that is always listening for instructions. I think it was a big surprise for the students to realize what it really means if the system has to always listen! They couldn’t say “stand in the corner near the microphone when you want to give voice commands”. They couldn’t say “turn on this program when you want the space to start listening to you”. Instead the system has to be listening all the time. It has to know how to ignore noise most of the time. It has to be energy efficient when it isn’t in use. And it has to be ready to respond to lots of different voices at any time, without warning.

How/why did you get involved with this project/these students?

As a professor, I love guiding students as they learn on their own. As an engineer, it is exciting to have the opportunity to lead a team working on big problems in a one-of-a-kind space. So when I learned that I could combine these two passions, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

What value does this space/approach to learning at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

There are a lot of aspects of the Mountaintop space that are big enablers for us. The first was that we had enough room for everyone to do what they needed to do. In an electrical engineering lab, there aren’t many workstations for doing serious programming. In computer science labs, there aren’t stations for soldering. Neither sort of lab has enough floor and table space for 10 people to stand around something a student built and watch how it behaves. But at Mountaintop, there’s enough room for students in different fields to work side-by-side, to have the resources and equipment they need, while all still being in the same place and interacting with each other all the time.

Another big enabler was that we had enough room to go ahead and build a mock-up room and start installing our devices into it. Our smart room is 10 feet high… you can’t build a 10-foot high room inside of Packard Lab, and then be able to stand on top of the roof to install cameras in the ceiling. If we couldn’t build the space, we wouldn’t have been able to test out nearly as much, or to run into all of the headaches (well, let’s call them “learning experiences”) that arise when you try to integrate so many different components into one system. Simply put, if we didn’t have so much room, we would have ended up with eight or ten small projects that never coalesced into one big project. And the physical size of our project is part of what makes it so valuable.

Lehigh Mountaintop Mentor Michael Spear

What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

The biggest challenges are never technical. The biggest challenges have to do with how the students will learn, and how they will respond to the changes that happen during the course of the project.

Students are going to discover that some things they thought were easy are actually really hard, and some things they thought were hard are easy. That’s a natural part of problem solving. But what’s really fun is to see how they respond to these discoveries. Will realizing that something is easy inspire the students to try to do much more than they originally planned? Will the discovery that something is difficult lead them to redouble their efforts, or to try to redefine the problem to make it easier? How will students change their work habits in response to success? In response to failure? How well will they learn to work together, and to know when they need help? Will they be confident enough to seek that help?

It’s easy to look at our students, who are incredibly smart, and forget that they are 19 years old. It’s easy to forget that this is the biggest project they’ve ever worked on. And so I think the biggest challenge, or at least the biggest source of uncertainty, is that I can’t predict how much personal growth is going to take place. But in the end, that’s part of the joy of being a professor- that I get to watch and guide students during this process of self-discovery. And in the end, I’ll probably end up learning a lot about myself, too.

An Elusive Nobel Laureate

A student film probes the life and poetry of Wisława Szymborska.

This drawing of Wisława Szymborska by Sava Marinkovic ’16 is part of an effort by four students to capture, in film and other media, the essence of the late Polish poet.

When she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, the poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) was praised for her wit, her ironic timing and her ability to illuminate “fragments of human reality.”The Nobel Prize brought global fame, but it was a mixed blessing, say a group of students who are studying the Polish poet. After winning one of the world’s most prestigious awards, Szymborska, who had previously been known mostly in Poland, went several years without composing a poem.

“Szymborska was not happy to win the Nobel Prize,” says Peter Schaedler ’17, a computer science major. “Her friends called this ‘the Nobel tragedy.’ For years afterwards, she didn’t write anything.”


The students (l-r: Schaedler, Setton, Huang and Marinkovic) say they were able to locate many online resources about Szymborska by conducting searches of her name spelled with Polish letters.

Schaedler is working with Karen Huang ’17, a cognitive science major, Sava Marinkovic ’16, an English major, and Avi Setton, a graduate student in English, to produce a film about Szymborska. The students have spent the last two months putting together a 20- or 30-minute piece that they say will be a hybrid between a documentary and an interpretation.

Their endeavor, one of 20 that student interns have undertaken this summer as part of the Mountaintop Project, is supervised by Elizabeth Fifer, professor of English. Last semester, Fifer assigned the students in her class on international poetry (English 11) to make short films on Szymborska. The Mountaintop interns are editing those films and adding their own contributions.

A modest prankster

Wisława Szymborska has a name that is challenging for English speakers to pronounce (vee-SWA-vuh sheem-BOR-skuh), but her poetry, even in translation, is remarkably accessible, say the Mountaintop interns.

“I really enjoy Szymborska’s poems,” says Schaedler. “They’re very relatable and down-to-earth. They’re not snobby; they’re very personable.”

“There’s something sarcastic about her poetry,” says Huang. “She says things that are so obvious but no one else is saying them.”

“Szymborska was funny, witty, private and modest,” says Setton. She was also a prankster, he adds, who was not above playing a practical joke on the friends she invited to her home.

mountaintop 2014

Szymborska, the students say, refused to be bound by one school of thought or literary genre.

“Szymborska was very much an innovator,” says Setton. “At the same time, she was adamant about preserving some things, including the medium of poetry. She handled this in a very unique way that enabled her to reach a bigger audience than the typically small group of people who like poetry.”

A Slavic take on reality

Marinkovic, a first-generation Serbian-American and devotee of Eastern European literature, sees in Szymborska’s writing a concept that is familiar to people with a Slavic world view.

In Serbian and in other Slavic languages, says Marinkovic, the word biti—similar to the English word be—also alludes to something almost akin to fatalism, to a belief that human beings cannot help the way things are.

“I definitely see biti in Szymborska,” Marinkovic says. “She’s down-to-earth; she’s humane. There’s not much artifice to her writing. It’s extreme realism; she tells stories of real life.”

Szymborska, says Huang, often summed up her philosophy in a three-word phrase: “I don’t know.”

“She used to say,” says Huang,” that those who pretend they do know make the most fuss in the world. “She refused to be put into one single school of political thought or into one poetic genre. She refused to tie herself to a political thought or a philosophy.”

Early in her career, says Schaedler, Szymborska aligned herself with the communist ideology that was imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union after World War II.

“At the beginning of her adult life, Szymborska was very politically minded. She was a fan of communist doctrine. But she fell out and became her own person. She later said she wanted to renounce the thoughts she had at that time [earlier in her life].”

Huang expands on this: “When she won the Goethe Prize in 1991, she gave a speech in which she admitted she had made mistakes. She had done this because she had believed she could change communism from the inside out.”

mountaintop 2014

Marinkovic (center) talks with Setton (left) and Schaedler.

The students have organized their film along a rough timeline of what they call the qualities of Szymborska’s personality. Each is contributing a short perspective that will be tied in with clips from the films produced in the spring by students in Fifer’s international poetry class.

“We’re looking at parts of her life, along with her personality, and how they come through in her poems,” says Huang, who has also written an essay on Szymborska’s poem “Nothing nothinged itself out for me as well.” (see below.)

The students plan to screen their completed film on campus this fall.

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Kurt Pfitzer


Nothing nothinged itself out for me as well…

by Wisława Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak

Nothing nothinged itself out for me as well
It truly turned inside out.
Where did I find myself?
From head to toe among the planets,
not even remembering how it was for me not to be.

O my dear that I met here and fell in love with here,
I can only imagine, with my hand on your shoulder,
how much emptiness is allotted us on the other side,
how much silence there for one cricket here,
how much meadow lacking there for a tiny leaf of sorrel here,
and the sun after darkness, like reparations
in a drop of dew–for such deep droughts there.

Starry helter-skelter! Here the other way around!
Stretched over curvature, weight, friction, and motion!
A break in infinity for the limitless sky!
A relief from non-space in the form of a swaying birch!

Now or never the wind moves a cloud
for the wind is exactly what doesn’t blow there.
And a beetle steps onto a path in the dark suit of a witness
on the occasion of a long wait for a short life.

But it just so happens that I am with you.
And I really see nothing
ordinary about it.

The End and the Beginning

by Wisława Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

Mountaintop in Motion – In the Hot Seat

Lehigh University mountaintop

Last week, we posted about the Engineering Equality project team sharing their motivation in creating a video and website exploring the perceptions of race at Lehigh over the last fifty years.  As part of their project, the team spent some time in the digital media studio on campus and we were able to snap a pic of their team in action.  To learn more about their project watch our video and check out their Tumblr chronicling their Mountaintop experience.

Technology for Smarter Living Spaces

Student researchers aim to equip homes and offices with intelligence.

smart spaces

Seamus Cullinane ’17 designed and 3-D printed Jamie, the quadraped. Here Cullinane consults with mentor Michael Spear about Jamie.

Imagine living in a home that can anticipate your movements—and your moods.

Bad day at the office? Your “smart” home would know that. When you walk through your front door, it would have the lights turned low, soft music playing and a fan creating a gentle breeze to soothe you. Running late at work? No worries. Your home would know that too, waiting until you are 15 minutes from the house to turn up the air conditioning in summer and the heat in winter.

For a cluster of Lehigh students spending the summer at Mountaintop’s Building C, it’s all about “Smart Spaces” – how to track people’s movements, anticipate people’s wants and needs, save energy and build and operate robots that can help people in need.

The multi-pronged Smart Spaces project is part of the Mountaintop initiative and is also a site for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Among the projects under way are those that would better integrate technology in the home or office.

“We want a space that knows who’s in it, that knows what’s in it, and that also knows how it can adapt to who and what’s in it,” said Michael Spear, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, about the students and projects he is mentoring under the Smart Spaces umbrella.


John Spletzer, who is heading the REU site at Mountaintop, talks with students about LILI the robot.

John Spletzer, associate professor of computer science and engineering, is heading the REU site at Mountaintop.  Spletzer, director of Lehigh’s Vision, Assistive Devices, and Experimental Robotics Laboratory (VADER lab), says the $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will fund 30  internships over the next three years, including eight this summer from Lehigh and other universities.

“The seeds for the REU Site were actually sown with last year’s Mountaintop experience in the summer of 2013.  This provided the vision for the current “Smart Spaces” initiative.  The fact that we received a prestigious grant from NSF provides validation of the significance of the research experience.   Nearly every faculty member in our department (Computer Science and Engineering) is supporting this project, and we are grateful for NSF’s support.”

Projects taking place at the Mountaintop’s Building C under the Smart Spaces umbrella include:

  • lili1

    From left, Cassandra Guerrero, Dan Coombe and Chris Garman pose with LILI, the robot. Photo by Mary Ellen Alu

    LILI, a robot, whose acronym stands for Lehigh Instrument for Learning Interaction. Students are developing a low-cost interactive robot that can be used for research with autistic children. LILI was built from scratch and has an avatar head. When fully operational, the robot will be able to recognize faces, gestures and voices, and follow simple commands.

Dan Coombe ’14, who is working on the project with Chris Garman ’16 and Cassandra Guerrero ’16 (Kutztown  University), says autistic  children who interact with the robot would hopefully learn to better interact with people, including how to express themselves better and read other people’s expressions.

Spletzer and Mooi Choo Chuah, professor of computer science and engineering, are mentors.

  • summer 2014 Mountaintop

    Mooi Choo Chuah is helping to mentor students.

    Rapiro, a small humanoid robot.  Stephen Cuzzi ’16 is working to establish a useful application for Rapiro, which was able to do simple things, such as move right or left, or forward or backward. Cuzzi hopes to give the robot “eyes” and teach it to recognize objects, such as a coffee maker, Chuah says. He also wants to control it remotely with a smart phone.

  • Cloud Security. Robert Brotzman-Smith (Kutztown University) and Matthew Hartman (East Stroudsburg University) are investigating a security issue related to cloud computing. Since software applications from different companies may be hosted on the same machine, there is a risk for sensitive data to be compromised without detection, says Chuah. The students want to show how a memory bus-based covert channel can work and then design a simple memory monitoring scheme that can differentiate between the memory access delays observed when legitimate applications or covert channels are running.

In addition to these projects, other students at Mountaintop are working individually on technologies that can be integrated to create a Smart Space. To demonstrate how the projects fit together, students are building a small room inside Building C to install their technologies.

With everyone doing their own thing, the process can be “messy,” admits Patricia Sittikul ’16. But Spear, who is mentoring them, is helping each of them to see the bigger picture, she says.

“These are interesting problems,” says Spear about the many initiatives, “and they’re hard problems.”

Students are developing:

  • smart spaces

    Jamie, the quadraped, is being designed to climb pipes.

    JAMIE, the quadruped. Seamus Cullinane ’17 designed and 3-D printed a four-legged robot with magnetized feet that allows it to climb pipes. The robot is a test platform that could integrate other technologies, such as video streaming and Global Positioning Systems, and possibly be controlled from a computer screen.

  • A Poor Man’s Bar Code. How can you better keep track of the stuff in your house that’s boxed up or stored away? Erik Outhwaite ’16 created an app for an android that would help people keep track of their belongings by drawing shapes on color Post-it notes. He also is working on object tracking to determine who or what is in a room at a particular time.
  • A “Marauder’s Map.” Like the magical document of Harry Potter fame, this GPS system would pinpoint where people are, and where they are not. Shawn Mehltretter (East Stroudsburg University) created a web GUI (graphical user interface) that shows where people are on a Google map. Jon Wu ’17 made an app that sends data to a server with the coordinates of people’s locations.
  • Human Activity Detection. Using cameras, Connor Tench ’15 counts the number of people in a space, tracks their movement and calculates how fast they are walking around in that space.

    summer 2014 Mountaintop

    Some 20 students are part of the Smart Spaces project at Mountaintop.

  • Ambient Intelligence. Can we learn people’s intent? Bruke Mammo ’17 and Laurel Warrell ’15 are using machine-learnings technique to detect whether people living in a smart space are wasting energy, says mentor Hector Muñoz-Avila, associate professor of computer science and engineering. If people act outside their patterns of behavior, that would raise a flag. For example, the system would notice if you fail to shut off your appliances at the time you usually do and then remind you to do so.
  • Interface: Patricia Sittikul is working on an interface that would tie all the Smart Space projects together and enable users to control the technology, whether a phone or computer app.
  • Remote control interface. James Currie ’16 has been building an interface for remote control of lights, fans, and other devices.
  • Speech interface. Geordan Johnson ’15 has been working on speech interfaces to the system.

“I like an environment where there’s a lot of intellectual diversity,” says Spletzer, about the Mountaintop space. If students run into problems they do not know how to solve, he says, they may find fellow students who do. Or they may end up collaborating on projects.

“It’s cool to walk around and see all the different things students are doing,” he says.

smart spaces

Mentor Michael Spear talks with Patricia Sittikul, who is working on an interface to tie all the Smart Space projects together.

In Spear’s group, many of the students are rising sophomores.

“This is the first time most of them had a project that didn’t have a correct answer,” he says. And for many of them, it’s the first time they have to rely on someone else for parts of their project.

“In so many ways,” Spear says, “this is a very unique learning experience.”

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu



A Story Worth Exploring

For their Summer 2014 Mountaintop project, Lehigh undergraduate students Viviana Rios ’15, Paul Lyons ’16, Kelsey Alpaio ’15, Corey Ross ’15 and graduate student Aaron Luedtke are producing a documentary about the history of race and diversity at Lehigh.

The producers are delving into University records, Brown & White archives and other historical resources to tell a story that that believe “has yet to be adequately explored.”

The students spoke to videographer Stephanie Veto about their project in July.

Mountaintop Mentor – Nik Nikolov

Nik Nikolov, assistant professor of architecture in the Department of Art, Architecture and Design, partnered up with Wesley Heis, also an assistant professor of architecture here at Lehigh, to mentor a diverse group of students this summer. Nik shared with us some of the reasons he got involved (by accident? luck? good timing?) with the Mountaintop experience and why he believes the opportunity is so unique.

Nik Nikolov Lehigh University Mountaintop

Give us your opinion on Mountaintop & the unique experience it will provide participating students.

I have always observed with curiosity the love affair that Lehigh students harbor with conceptual development — the love for ideas, the thrill of generating something “new,” the total subjectivity through which they view their place in the world. What a luxury! To be afforded the freedom, to put an “I’ in the center of the forest and be allowed to organize the world around it …

Coming myself from a practical profession (architecture), I am continuously surprised how great ideas have the shelf life of bananas. It takes courage to test an intoxicatingly great idea- it takes perseverance and it sometimes takes so much time, you even forget what the whole reason for it was in the first place… Good ideas beat you down. (paraphrasing one of our crew members) This is what attracted me to Mountaintop. Discovery is a process, not an ‘a-ha’ moment. It is a pursuit. A pursuit that is not always possible in the class environment of a regular semester. Here at Mountaintop, we can focus, fail, persevere, take time, keep asking, be mindful.

You know, snipers are taught special breathing techniques that slow the heart rate down. Design is a war of attrition — we train to breathe, aim (high), release.


How did you get involved with this project/these students?

Fellow faculty member Wes Heiss and I did a very successful student/faculty collaboration last year. Together, with undergraduate Architecture/Engineering dual-majors Kathryn Stevens and Julia Klitzke, we designed and built a playhouse after-hours over a couple of months. We called it Imaginarium – a small, kid-size building made in response to the 2013 Annual Playhouse Design Competition organized by the Eastern PA chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The competition promoted design and architecture in the Lehigh Valley and the entries were open to the public to use with the start of Christkindlmarkt, the traditional festival of the season in Bethlehem, PA. In late December, the entries were auctioned to raise funds for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley. We were interested in expanding the idea of play beyond something that is either learned or unlearned. The resulting design is a mysterious, faceted crystal-like house which resisted the common strategy applied to children-bound creations – to create small versions of big things (princess castle), or big versions of small things (mushroom house).

So when the call for proposals for the Mountaintop experience came up, it all clicked — the space, the philosophy, the freedom … we were ready for the next playhouse. We called it Shapeshifter as it will be transformable and will react to human occupation. It will be large enough for a child to play in and will be designed for outdoor use, utilizing materials that will withstand the elements. Further, it will be transportable and most importantly: it will invite participation.

The idea of play has been widely theorized in every possible meaning and application. From anthropology to engineering, play is fundamental to the acquisition of knowledge while challenging it at the same time. Play, according to Huizinga, “is older than culture.” Please resist imagining jungle gyms or cute stacks of fisher-price cubes!

We have a truly multidisciplinary crew of dedicated students: Liz Phillips (graphic design), Luke Genthe (electrical engineering), Matt Wetzel (civil engineering), Dylan Petruskevicius (mechanical engineering), Michelle Vollmuller (environmental engineering), Tess Flemming (architecture), Ben Gingold (product design). For us, it entails a path both made and found. We describe it as a poetic use of technology in ways mediated by material and time.

So how did we get involved? I don’t know, an accident? It all started with an idea and we’ve been continually playing and testing since.

Mountaintop Mentor – Elizabeth Fifer


We asked Professor Fifer to give us some insight on the student project happening at Mountaintop this summer under her mentorship and she shared, in her own words, her thoughts on their progress to date and the hopeful outcome of their efforts.

The Mountaintop Project gives students a chance to work independently as a group with faculty guidance, but not direction, so the students can be as creative and wide-ranging as they want.

I applied for a grant for 4 interns to edit 9 short films my English 11 students made last semester about Wislawa Szymborska. They are making a longer film from the various parts, adding their own films and an interview with Joanna Trzeciak, who translated the collection Miracle Fair on which all the films are based.

The greatest challenge for them is technical–will they be able to create a coherent film from many disparate parts? I think with their high level of skill they will be able to meet this challenge.

I hope that they finish the project with a 20 minute film that serves as a celebration of Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska and an introduction to her beautiful poetry.

Mountaintop Mentor – John Spletzer

John spletzer Lehigh

A car that drives without a human driver, using lasers and sensors to respond dynamically to its environment.

A system that allows wheelchair users to get into and out of their vehicles, stow and retrieve their chairs, and drive while sitting in traditional auto seats that meet federal safety regulations.

A smart wheelchair that navigates on its own, with no human guidance, transporting users along city streets while avoiding stationary objects and adjusting to pedestrians and bicyclists.

And a small aircraft that studies climate change and tracks weather patterns as it glides endlessly through the jet stream, consuming no energy and again, requiring no human intelligence.

These are just some of the ways in which John Spletzer practices the art of engineering. Spletzer, associate professor of computer science and engineering, is director of Lehigh’s Vision, Assistive Devices, and Experimental Robotics Laboratory, or VADER Lab, for short.

This summer, Spletzer is mentoring two teams of students who are seeking to extend “intelligence” from vehicles to spaces. How can an intelligent living space sense and respond to your mood? How can it respond to collective behaviors? The 20 students in the project will make use of 3-D augmented reality, ambient intelligence, computer vision, embedded devices, mobile computing, networking and wecurity, robotics, and user interface design.

Here, Spletzer shares his thoughts on Mountaintop and the opportunities it is providing his students.

How/why did you get involved with this project/these students?

Smart Spaces Lehigh Mountaintop

A year or so ago, I got an alumni email from University of Pennsylvania about Max Mintz – a professor whom I really admire. He is very passionate about undergraduate research. Of course I started reminiscing, so I did a quick search to see what he was up to. Well among other things, he was heading up a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site which provides internship opportunities for undergraduates in Penn’s robotics laboratory.

I did a little more digging about NSF REU Sites and thought it would be great to get one at Lehigh in computer science. However, awards are very competitive. Fortunately we were able to catalyze our research around the Mountaintop experience and proposed “The Lehigh Smart Spaces Project.” The idea was well received at NSF and in April 2014, we were awarded a grant of $340K for which I am Principal Investigator. The grant funds ten summer intern positions per year for the next three years. When combined with the interns supported by Lehigh, our department has roughly twenty students working at Mountaintop this summer.

What value does the space/approach to learning at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

I’ve heard analogies to how things are set up to emulate Google or Facebook, but I view it a little bit differently — it reminds me of cooperative start-up spaces where you have a host of small start-up companies collected in the same space. One obvious benefit to this arrangement is the sharing of physical resources. However, the biggest benefit is leveraging the *people* resources. With over 100 researchers in one space, there’s a lot of intellectual diversity. We encourage the students to take advantage of it. Walk around. Talk to other groups. It’s amazing how much can be learned.

What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

Smart Spaces 02 Lehigh Mountaintop

The biggest challenge is time. Everything takes longer than you think, and we only have 10 weeks. The good news is there are mechanisms at Lehigh (internships, independent study research, etc.) to continue the work beyond the summer if the students are interested. So, it doesn’t have to end in the Fall.

How Do You Want to Learn?

A trio of engineering students at Mountaintop tackle an education problem.


From left, David DiFrancesco, Chris Buglione and Jason Wu of Project Mathete.

When David DiFrancesco ’15 pitched his idea for a Mountaintop project that would explore how students live and learn, he quoted the Chinese thinker and philosopher Confucius, who expressed the belief that people must experience something themselves in order to really understand it.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

And so it is with Project Mathete (pronounced MAH-theh-teh), as DiFrancesco and fellow teammates Chris Buglione ’15 and Jason Wu ’15 set out to explore and to demonstrate how students learn best.

Using Mountaintop as backdrop and inspiration, the team has been surveying students and professors about educational issues, asking each other difficult questions, envisioning the classroom of the future and developing a classroom project to test their theories on learning.

“Our project is based around the idea that there’s some sort of disconnect between the way you learn in class and the way you learn in the real world,” says DiFrancesco. “And we kind of boiled that whole concept down to a few things. First off, we think that the way you learn in the real world is by doing.


David DiFrancesco sees disconnect in way people learn in the classroom and in the real world.

“And that’s the way everyone’s learning up here, by doing,” he says, glancing at the Mountaintop space. “So we kind of theorized, everything that everyone learns up here, they’re going to remember for a long, long, long, long time. It’s an experience that’s embedded in them.”

The students also are looking at the effectiveness of technology in the classroom. “Everything we do today, as students at least, is immersed in technology,” he says.

The project gets its name from the Greek word “mathete,” which means “to learn.”

When DiFrancesco was writing the proposal, he settled on the name as a way to spark interest and conversation among fellow students engaged in Mountaintop projects, while also knowing that the Greeks gave the world great teachers in the likes of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Besides, he says spiritedly, Project Mathete “sounded pretty awesome.”

The project teams up DiFrancesco, who is studying mechanical engineering in the Integrated Business and Engineering program; Buglione, a computer engineer; and Wu, who is studying mechanical engineering and product design in the Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences program.


Jason Wu says the students at Mountaintop are ‘exploring their own way’ out of problems.

The Mountaintop space is a fitting laboratory for the trio. Wu says Mountaintop facilitates learning because students are “exploring their own way out” of problems. “There’s a lot of autonomy….That way you actually learn by doing it yourself and making mistakes and learning from those.”

At the start, the trio surveyed students both at Mountaintop and online to assess the way students believed they were motivated to learn – whether by a thirst for knowledge, by change, by recognition or by a means to an end, like getting good grades and ultimately landing a job.

“Why does anyone learn anything?” asks Buglione. “Why do you go to class? What’s the reasoning behind it?

The top survey answer was “thirst for knowledge.”

However, over concerns whether students’ answers would truly reflect their motivations, and at Buglione’s urging, the team also asked an open-ended question in the initial survey – what inspires you? – then classified the students’ answers. And that’s where the survey results diverged.

“A lot more people are inspired by a means to an end than they would like to actually admit,” Buglione says.

Another survey gauged the effectiveness of technology in the classroom. Many of the students who responded didn’t think technology would help them to learn, while professors felt the use of technology in the classroom would help their students to learn more.

Surprised by the students’ responses, since it conflicted with their theory about the value of technology, the team conducted follow-up interviews. Students who didn’t think technology would help them told them that they had seen it implemented poorly.

“Technology for the sake of technology is a bad thing,” says DiFrancesco, who, like the other team members, felt the survey responses were somewhat skewed because of students’ bad experiences.


Chris Buglione asks, ‘Why does anyone learn anything?’

With the surveys done, the students now want to assess whether a “doing” activity and technology would facilitate learning, particularly in engineering. They plan to focus on a single course, MECH 102 (Dynamics) and a difficult and confusing concept taught in the course—Coriolis acceleration, the apparent deflection of moving objects when viewed in rotation.

“Can we teach this course better?” asks Buglione. “Or, can we add things to this course to make it better?”

The students will set up four mock classes: one as control group, another with technology added, one with a “doing” activity, and one with both technology and a “doing” activity added. Then, the students will test both comprehension and retention among participants.

And what happens if their theories on learning don’t pan out?

“One of the big things about this project,” says Buglione, “is that even if we don’t find anything, or if all of our preconceptions are wrong, it will still be a worthwhile result because we will have found out that all our preconceptions were wrong.”

Says DiFrancesco, “Everything we’ve done has led us to this point…If it doesn’t matter where you end, there are not mistakes to be made really. It’s just things you can figure out how to do better.”

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu 


At Play at Mountaintop

Video by Stephanie Veto

A group of students at Mountaintop have been designing an interactive space for kids in a project they call “Shapeshifter.”  Before summer’s end, the students will build their design, which will change and shift shape as kids play and interact with the structure.

The project is an offshoot of work done by an undergraduate team for the 2013 Annual Playhouse Design Competition. After completion of the playhouse design, mentors Wesley Heis and Nik Nikolov, assistant professors of architecture in the Department of Art, Architecture and Design, saw an opportunity for students to develop new ideas in play space design as a Mountaintop experience.

Heis and Nikolov are combining their individual specializations in product design and architecture to support this multidisciplinary team of design, engineering and business students.The team includes Matthew Wetzel ’15, Luke Genthe ’15, Elizabeth Phillips ’15, Tess Fleming ’14, Benjamin Gingold ’15, Michelle Vollmuller ’17 and Dylan Petruskevicius ’15.