A Revolutionary Approach to Curriculum Design

They blew the project out of the water. One student said they wished every professor at Lehigh would adopt this approach.
- Ed Webb, Lehigh University

Engineering a Stronger Tree

A Revolutionary Approach to Curriculum Design Puts Students in the Driver’s Seat

by Ed Webb, March 16, 2017. This article was originally published in Lehigh University’s “Resolve Magazine.” Reprinted with permission.

Ed Webb, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Lehigh, was dismayed as he reviewed the student reactions to the first project in his Strength and Materials class in 2015. 

“One student said ‘I felt I learned little except how to be frustrated over a computer code.’ They hated it.” 

Soon after, Webb attended a workshop on “Integrating the Curriculum with Entrepreneurial Mindset,” hosted by Lawrence Technological University through the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN). Inspired to find ways to spark his students’ creativity and engagement, he challenged the next semester’s class with an open-ended project: Design a treehouse for a charmingly eccentric ‘Aunt Ada.’ 

Webb's class

In Webb’s class, the real-world approach he built into the assignment yielded:

  • Plans for a fully functioning treehouse
  • A design for an elevator within a hollow trunk
  • Ways to use locally sourced materials to meet sustainability goals
  • Information on the average heights of trees commonly found in the Poconos so the treehouse wouldn’t tower above the forest

And a walk-out porch placed with the detonation heights for various classes of fireworks in mind, so Aunt Ada could see a nearby fireworks display every July 4th!

“They blew the project out of the water,” recalls Webb. “One student said they wished every professor at Lehigh would adopt this approach.” 

The root of the entrepreneurial mindset that KEEN seeks to instill in engineers is summed up by KEEN’s 3C’s: Curiosity, Connections and Creating Value. The idea is to encourage engineers to adopt holistic thinking that challenges conventional ideas and integrates fresh ones. By taking ownership and thinking broadly and creatively about every aspect of projects they work on, engineers have a chance to enrich the lives of the people that their work touches.

Lehigh students


John Ochs is working to implement the KEEN tenets throughout Lehigh’s engineering program. Ochs, then a professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics and director of the university’s Technical Entrepreneurship capstone course, was at the table to help shape KEEN’s mission when it was launched just over a decade ago. He serves as the point person on campus now that Lehigh has joined the network of participating schools. 

“We’re leveraging KEEN training to influence the way faculty create their curriculum,” he says. “All undergraduate engineering students should be exposed to KEEN’s entrepreneurial minded learning (EML) techniques and have the chance to incorporate them into their educations and careers. So, we intend to infuse EML in some way into all core courses across every major. At present, some 45 engineering faculty who teach those core courses are employing KEEN principles to develop their own EML modules, and we plan to host further training to grow this over time.” 

“We are providing a roadmap, and cultivating a community of like-minded faculty who will integrate EML across Lehigh’s engineering landscape.”

The personal impact of the entrepreneurial mindset

Watch Professor Webb's keynote from the 2017 KEEN National Conference

After attending an Innovating Curriculum With Entrepreneurial Mindset workshop, he discovered how he could unleash the mindset of his engineering students. But it didn't stop there. To his surprise, his view of education, instruction, and even parenting have been changed.


Associated Content

Engineering a stronger treehouse

Project-Based Learning: A Treehouse for Aunt Ada

Ask your students to design and optimize an artificial tree trunk to support an “epic” treehouse for a fictitious, eccentric but innovative, Aunt Ada! Includes defining parameters, writing pseudo code for a finite element analysis, creating a design proposal, and completing a 1D finite element code and analysis. This project provides a platform for exploration of some of the course learning objectives in an experiential format.
Cross-Curriculum Entrepreneurially Minded Learning Implementation

Lehigh University: Cross-College and Cross-Curriculum EML Implementation

In 2015, entrepreneurially minded learning (EML) was essentially non-existent in our curricula. In four years, we have transformed curricula throughout our college with inter-connected EML implementation.

Meet the Author

Edmund Webb, Associate Professor, Lehigh University

Prior to joining the Lehigh faculty in 2010, Webb spent 12 years with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. As a national laboratory research scientist, Prof. Webb applied high performance computing resources to a range of materials and mechanics problems, including capillary driven fluid flow, friction mitigation, stress evolution in thin films, nanoscale thermal transport, and liquid droplet impacts. He was recipient of several Recognition Awards from Sandia for various contributions in research and service to the organization.

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