It’s a tradition that dates back to the 19th century — carving jack-o’-lanterns. Now, it’s a teaching tool to help students disconnect from a life of instant gratification and learn patience and problem-solving.
William Genereux, associate professor of engineering technology at Kansas State University Salina, and Katrina Lewis, associate professor of interior architecture & product design on the university’s Manhattan campus, developed a pumpkin-carving project designed to improve students’ skills in information gathering, 3-D imagery and problem-solving.
“One way that college educators can help students learn to manage the challenges of living a digital life is by giving assignments that do not have instantly gratifying solutions,” Genereux said. “There is no app for carving an amazing pumpkin; doing it well requires persistence and extended concentration. Students completing this project will often spend three or more hours perfecting their pumpkins.”
The professors have written a paper about the project, “Pumpkin Carving as an Exercise in Design Process Thinking,” which Genereux recently presented the paper at the 2014 Frontiers in Education Conference in Madrid, Spain.
For the project, students spend a day at the zoo, taking pictures or hand-drawing images of animals to carve into their pumpkins. Then students translate those pictures into a 3-D image that will contour to the shape of the pumpkin, taking into account how much detail to include. Finally, students carve the image into the pumpkin, making adjustments as they go. They donate the final product to the zoo.
Not only is the activity a fun way to spend a couple of class periods, it’s also an opportunity to combine the different teaching methods used in engineering versus other academic classes.
“There is currently a disparity between the sort of thinking used in the actual practice of engineering and the kind of thinking that is generally required in academic settings,” Genereux said. “In academia, we tend to value convergent thinking that arrives at single correct answers to well-defined problems. However, in engineering practices, problems are often open-ended, having more than one possible solution to be considered through divergent thinking. Effective design and creativity require both convergent and divergent thinking; there is much room for improvement in this area of engineering education.”