By the time they complete his mechanical engineering class, Professor John Morrell's students will have designed and built a hybrid car or a model airplane and entered them in national competitions.
During the semester, the Yale undergraduates in his class will have confronted some of the toughest and most unpredictable variables any engineer must face — their own colleagues.
Morrell teaches a lesson he learned firsthand while creating new products in private industry: No engineering design project succeeds unless participants account for the innovative and volatile force of human interactions.
(Edited by Elizabeth Connolly)
"They learn to do something they couldn't do as an individual,'' says Morrell, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "They also learn that everybody has to deliver to complete a project. If someone doesn't make a strong landing gear, the plane isn't going to take off or land in one piece.''
Morrell was one of the lead dynamics engineers on the Segway — a self-powered standup scooter hailed as a revolution in personal transportation when it was unveiled in 2001.
The Segway, brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen, was revolutionary because its design gave the device dynamic stability that allows the rider to remain upright while controlling the vehicle simply by leaning forward or backward.
However, the design process involved in creating the Segway was not straightforward, but a sometimes messy and contentious affair, says Morrell, adding that the eventual design was born from many farfetched, risky ideas.
"At Segway, we used to hold ‘Frog Kissing Days' because Dean was always saying, ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince,'" Morrell says. "So we'd take some time to try out crazy ideas and we explicitly celebrated our spectacular failures. Trying new —- sometimes called ‘stupid' — ideas needs to be rewarded if you're going to innovate. Sometimes, you find a prince.''
That's what he tells his students: Each failure has its own lesson; they should embrace their mistakes and move forward quickly.
"I want students to fail early and often,'' he says. "That way, they learn how to recover. Once they know how to recover quickly, they can take bigger risks with more confidence."
Morrell says the world is filled with "maestros" or "tribals" — a framework formulated by psychologist Nicholas Lore. "Maestros" are defined as people who would choose to be the starting pitcher on the baseball team, even if it means they play on a losing team. "Tribals" are willing to sit on the bench, if it means their team plays in the World Series. The students in Morrell's engineering class learn to which category they belong.
When Terrence Myelle '08 enrolled in Morrell's class last spring, he just wanted to get his hands dirty designing and building a hybrid car. But after he was assigned to a team, he quickly learned what isn't said is sometimes as important as what is.
He was voted team leader immediately. Sometimes, he admits, he had to swallow hard and let a fellow student, for example, place a wire harness on one part of the chassis, even though he thought there might be a better location.
"Before this class, I didn't think much about the decision-making aspect of working in a group," Myelle says. "In addition to managing the technical challenges, you have to manage the coordination of the project as well." When asked if he would rather be on the bench in the World Series or starting for a losing team, Myelle doesn't hesitate: "I want to be on the winning team."
"That's why he became the leader,'' Morrell says.
Morrell divides up his class, with some students working on designing a model airplane and some on hybrid car. The airplane project was based on the rules for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Aero Design contest. Last year's airplane inspired a student to build his own airplane for the contest in Marietta, Georgia, in April.
Myelle and several students in the spring semester class took their hybrid car to New Hampshire the first weekend in May to compete in the SAE Formula Hybrid competition.
In the fall semester, some of Morrell's students worked on a two-person, human-powered electric power assist vehicle for city transportation. It will soon be ready for its first road test.
"Most students don't get to see something of this magnitude accomplished in a semester,'' Morrell says. "Yet this is what mechanical engineering is for many people. Some people thrive on it, others have trouble engaging with it. If you're thinking about becoming a mechanical engineer, you should know what this experience is like."
A video showing some of the projects done by students in John Morrell's spring class can be found on the Yale Bulletin & Calendar website at opa.yale.edu/bulletin.
— By Bill Hathaway