April 08, 2014, BY Heather Johns

Seventeen Bucknell sophomores spent a portion of winter break on campus as part of the K-WIDE program for engineering students.

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The biggest challenge of the K-WIDE program isn't getting 17 Bucknell sophomores to cut short their winter break and return to campus for an engineering boot camp. It's getting those students to 50,000 feet.

Not literally, of course.

Fifty-thousand feet isn't a place so much as a mindset. And, according to professors Charles Kim, mechanical engineering, and Joe Tranquillo, biomedical and electrical engineering, most undergraduate engineering students are "5-foot thinkers."

"We want to provide to our students a much broader view of how engineering fits into the entire world — societal values, economics, the environment, an entrepreneurial mindset — and that's where the 50,000-foot level comes in," explained Kim.

A key to achieving this goal is the KEEN Winter Interdisciplinary Design Experience, or K-WIDE.

Funded by a grant from the Kern Family Foundation, the Bucknell University program brings together engineering students from different disciplines in a very intense design process, which begins with developing a high-level concept and continues through building a final prototype.

"We want our students to ask big, high-level what-if questions and see where it leads them," said Tranquillo.  

The first K-WIDE program involved restoring and improving urban infrastructure. This year students were challenged to tackle problems related to human weight.

They were given data and a presentation by Bucknell professor Kevin Myers, psychology, and divided into teams. They had 10 days to design and build a device that would have an impact.

"And it isn't simply a technical impact," said Tranquillo. "We want them to think about the economic, social, environmental, ethical and many other forms of impact."

"Our professors said we'd be surprised at how much we can get done in this amount of time," said mechanical engineering major Delaney Charney '16. "They really pushed so that we didn't limit ourselves to what we assumed was possible."

The five teams each tackled the problem differently. Charney's team built a pedal-powered massage chair. Others designed a fitness tracking bracelet for kids and an alarm clock that can only be shut off by performing certain exercises.

The process pushed the students to practice engineering outside the usual scope of their majors. Rohan Garg '16 said he was surprised by how much K-WIDE tapped into skills his chemical engineering major rarely called upon. "We're actually building something people can use," he said. "I'm doing more mechanical and electrical engineering than I thought I could do."

"As they go through the K-WIDE program, students begin to assume new roles that they didn't associate themselves with before," said Kim.

"After K-WIDE, students realize they have a whole set of tools they never had before," agreed Tranquillo. "They'd never heard of  [microprocessing development environment] Arduino, but now they can see a hard problem and how they might use an Arduino to solve it. Or they'd never been in the machine shop before, but now they realize that they can make prototypes of just about any image they can come up with. To have that attitude as an undergraduate is huge."

A solution to the problem of human weight can't be engineered in 10 days, no matter what the elevation. But the K-WIDE program has shown that it's possible for students to dream — and do — big things.

"We all have these watershed moments in our lives," said Kim. "I think that's what K-WIDE brings to our students."