Nestled on top of South Mountain, a ridge thick with hardwood trees that runs next to southeastern Pennsylvania's Bethlehem valley, sit two huge buildings that used to pump out much of the country's post-war steel. For the past 19 years, the 120,000-square-foot space lay dormant, but this past summer, crews of Lehigh University students set up shop inside, working among flying robots, dress models, whiteboards, and the peeling paint.
The Mountaintop program came about as the result of a $20 million seed gift from Urban Outfitters co-founder (and Lehigh alum) Scott Belair, who declared he wanted those buildings to serve as a campus free of lectures and filled with limitless opportunities for invention. In April 2013, the Lehigh administration started soliciting ideas for the upcoming program from faculty and students, but then the school decided that it would simply let the students' curiosity shape the learning. No classes. No homework. No tests.
In an age where Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, challenge traditional higher educational hierarchies by providing anyone coursework on a screen, the Mountaintop project is taking physical, collaborative learning environments and hurtling them into the 21st century. A giant set of steel manufacturing buildings in rural Pennsylvania doesn’t provide the same kind of broad-based access as a MOOC, but Lehigh professors, administrators, and students say they offer unparalleled opportunities to solve problems in teams and develop prototypes in real life.
"I actually believe that the timing of this couldn't be better," Lehigh president Dr. Alice Gast told Co.Exist. "This kind of work you can't do online, you can't do at night in your pajamas on the computer. You need to be with other people, and it involves collaboration, and the inquiry, and the open-endedness you can't get from a MOOC—but I think [Mountaintop] is very complementary to those resources," she added.
Mountaintop refuses to label itself as a research institute, an enterprise incubator, or even a lab— only as a space for inquiry-based learning. For example: Product design senior Dominique Brown, 24, used Mountaintop to extend her thesis project on intelligent textiles and clothing as architecture. She reached out to companies that produced light responsive phase change material to create 15 different designs that absorb and release energy when needed.
Meanwhile, Daniel Lopresti, chair of the Computer Science and Engineering program, helped one of his students develop a computer vision project for human hand motions needed to conduct music, while another student set up sensors throughout the space to measure temperature and activity.
Lopresti also bought small robotic helicopters with videos to fly around the 60-foot high warehouses and map the area. He believes "smart spaces" like these could one day aid those with limited mobility.
"I think it’s a first step for something very interesting with robots," Lopresti said. "If you ever wanted to create a real accurate 3-D map of a space like that, these robots could be systems to help disabled people move. You could also imagine this as a prototype space to build search and rescue-type robots, how can you help people when their building collapses."
Other groups of students made a documentary on the first five women to join the Lehigh English department, tested post-disaster structures, and looked at ways to mitigate tuberculosis in the developing world.
Marc de Vinck, a long-time figure in the maker community and illustrator of the MakerBot how-to book, leads his students through prototyping, solving real world problems, and open collaboration in the existing Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) program, but he sees Mountaintop as a crucial opportunity to push more students into those situations earlier.
"It's much more open-ended in the real world than it is in the university environment. We're training students to be leaders in the real world—they're not doing rote tasks," de Vinck said.
Lehigh hasn't decided whether Mountaintop will feature grades, though Gast says there will likely be opportunity for scholarships. The administration has big plans for the physical space, which it anticipates will be fed by $100 to $200 million in the coming years to build out the campus. Still, the buildings remain raw. During the summer pilot, students had to evacuate for a week because of snowing paint chips.
"The dream of the Mountaintop campus, what we want to be up there, it's going to take a while to happen. You can't just snap your fingers and this whole facility is built with state of the art technology," Brown, the intelligent textiles product designer, said. "I learned a whole lot from this summer experience that's helping me go into my senior thesis, and that's without the technology up there. It's crazy to think what would happen 10 years from now."