The drunk student who designed an airplane – Are there more of his kind?

drunk student tweetThis week Engineering abruptly jumped into the news headlines, and straight into the public imagination. For once, my family and neighbours are earnestly seeking my honest engineering opinion – “Will the airplane designed by the drunken student fly?” Sadly,   I only have a brushing acquaintance with aeronautical engineering, so I haven’t been of any help, which has prompted my two daughters to ominously opine “Even drunk students are better than their university teachers.” I must admit that in the eyes of my immediate family, my credibility as an engineering educator is now somewhat dented. But I am excited, nevertheless.  Up until this week, none of my daughters had ever expressed any interest in engineering. They all want to go into medical school, and so far as university education goes, that’s all they want to hear.  But this week I have watched in incredulity as they shared and dissected the story with their friends on social media. Certainly, in my own reckoning, no amount of official promotion for engineering amongst the public has garnered anything approaching the level of interest generated by this innocuous tweet.

This is definitely a human interest story, and most news outlets have carried it. The general angle adopted by editors has been to highlight the “craziness” of a drunken student designing an airplane. For instance, whilst the Guardian has labelled the student a “crazy genius”, some outlets have used headlines that are likely to elicit introspection from engineering educators. Examples include the Metro, which titled its story: “Engineering student wakes up from night out, discovers he’s designed a plane.” In my opinion, this title seems to hint that its cool to be an engineering student, and that it is within the realms of possibility for “cool” engineering students to design things, even in surroundings that are decidedly more exotic than the classroom. A forum for engineering students on Reddit has weighed in with: “So this is what happens when an Aero student gets drunk…” Again, this seems to highlight the coolness of aeronautical engineering students. And most importantly, the article has generated a lively student debate on the forum, with many giving their own opinions on the pros and cons of the design. As an engineering educator, this is what I wish my students to be doing, and I know that most of my colleagues share the same dream. If only we could relive such lively, animated, and well-informed debates amongst our students every day!

However, I liked best the headline by The Debrief: “The best drunk story we’ve heard in a long time.” For me, it is not just the best “drunk story” that I have come across in a long while. It is also the best engineering education story in a long while. Why? Because, as Kevin Craig correctly observes, most of our students “focus on facts, tests, and grades and fail to understand concepts and processes”, and are “unable to integrate knowledge, processes, techniques, and tools, both hardware and software, to solve a multidisciplinary problem.” This is not the case with our drunk student. He clearly applied his learning to solving a real life problem. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has stated that university education, among other things, needs to create “habits of mind that foster integrative thinking and the ability to transfer skills and knowledge from one setting to another.”  Clearly, if our student could refer to engineering textbooks to guide him through such a complex design in his drunken state, then this can only mean that he is well acquainted with such design processes. It could be that in his non-drunken state he may be excelling in engineering design and analysis. If this is the case, then we can safely conclude that he is now at the stage in his budding career where engineering practice is now second nature to him.

Most active learning pedagogies in use in engineering schools the world over seek to produce students who are as innovative and as motivated as this drunk student. But such a goal has not yet been conclusively achieved. I would think that perhaps the drunk student’s professors at Michigan Tech University have found the keys to achieving such an elusive goal. If this is the case, then Charles Vest can now take comfort that at least one institution of higher education has successfully transformed itself  into a place of learning that students find to be “exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering.” However, if this is the case, then this story would not have caught the world’s imagination in this way. Instead, drunken designs by crazy geniuses, as the Guardian puts it, would be a way of life in Houghton, Michigan. Which leaves me to wonder – are my colleagues at Michigan Tech University not in the same boat as all of us – happy that at least one drunken student ticked all the boxes for successfully attaining the cherished outcomes of a well- designed active learning programme, although no one knows how he did it. After all, Charles Vest admits: “Despite our best efforts to plan their education, …  to a large extent we simply wind them up, step back, and watch the amazing things they do.”

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