The Learning Factory is 'taking summer back' with at-home engineering challenges

Through a series of challenges for engineering undergraduates, the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory encourages creative innovation at home


By Ashley J. WennersHerron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State College of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory is helping students take their summer back, after months in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, through an international competition, “The Great Learning Factory Make Off.” 

With four two-week challenges, the competition encourages undergraduates to use their imaginations and on-hand supplies to build classic instructional engineering activities, such as an egg drop and a Rube Goldberg Machine, but with a twist. The first challenge — the egg drop — directed students to create a way to keep an egg safe not only through a fall, but also through flight. The second challenge — the Rube Goldberg Machine — had students building intricate contraptions across their living rooms or in their parents’ garages to make a bottle dispense hand sanitizer. 

“We were trying to come up with ideas for ways our students could ‘take back summer,’ our catchphrase for [Learning Factory] activities, after many internships and other activities were cancelled,” said Matt Parkinson, director of the Learning Factory and professor of engineering design, mechanical engineering and industrial and manufacturing engineering. “We have been watching a lot of ‘The Great British Baking Show’ and thought ‘The Great Learning Factory Make Off’ would be a fun — and appropriate — version. It provides a venue for people to be creative and resourceful in a time that can be easily consumed with lolling about.” 

The challenge to combat “lolling about” is directly addressed in the third challenge: Make Us a Game. The task was to create a sporty, socially distanced game that specifically utilizes fruit.  

“We have entries from all over the world,” Parkinson said. “Our rising [first-year students] are giving the strongest performance so far, but we expect the upperclassmen to pull through in the final event.” 

The first three challenges feature a Star Maker who was awarded with a $500 scholarship, as well as runners up, who won Learning Factory merchandise. The final competition, which will focus on improving the remote learning experience and end on Aug. 7, will award one Star Maker with $1,000. 

“[The challenges] are great fun,” Parkinson said. “People should check out previous winners on our Learning Factory@Home website. There is a two-minute video for each winner, and they are excellent and full of delightful bits … [The students] worked so hard and did some amazing things.”  

Parkinson also noted that the program has been largely organized by three Learning Factory interns who are sophomores in the College of Engineering: Martha Christino, who intends to major in civil engineering; Grace Sibley, intended mechanical engineering major; and Luke Pagan, intended mechanical engineering major. 

“They’re really running the show,” Parkinson said. “They’re awesome.”

Once the fall semester begins, the Learning Factory will continue to host other events such as Build Nights and Make-A-Thons, with new safety precautions in place. The Great Learning Factory Make Off will return next summer.


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Megan Lakatos