Fixie or Four-Speed? New Bicycle is Best of Both
Jonathan Fiene knows student engagement. As a lecturer and advisor for the University of Pennsylvania's Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics Program, he helps students bring their knowledge from the classroom to the real world on a daily basis.
When his students designed an innovative new bicycle, the Alpha Bike, it earned the excitement and admiration of the cycling community. In this interview, we talk with Dr. Fiene about the Alpha Bike, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and the importance of inspiration for innovation.
Changemakers: Tell us a little more about the Alpha Bike, and what inspired your students to design it.
Jonathan Fiene: Every year, our Mechanical Engineering students do a capstone design project during their senior year. The project is free-form and open-ended; the students get to pick a problem they’re passionate about and try to solve it.
In this group, there were five students, and most of them were avid bike riders. Philadelphia has a really strong cycling community that is really well supported here, and the team wanted to work on a project in that space.
Three of the students regularly rode fixed-gear bicycles. These bikes are simple, with no ratchet in the rear wheel and only one speed. They’re really practical, and many engineers appreciate their simplicity.
However, there are times when riding a fixed-gear bike is not practical, for example, riding up and down hills. What this team of students decided to do was to see how far they could push the equipment and technology they had at Penn to develop something that didn’t already exist. They developed the Alpha Bike: a bike that can switch between functioning as a fixed-gear bike and a traditional freewheel bike.
The students were surprised by the response to their project. What started as an educational project has now drawn a lot of interest from the cycling community. People now ask us, “Where can I buy one?” The response was unexpected but also very exciting.
Changemakers: That sounds like fun! What about your approach to STEM education do you think is the most effective?
Fiene: Our model is really focused on hands-on experiences in STEM education. This represents a shift seen nationwide in engineering.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, most engineering schools were focused on deep theoretical knowledge and book learning, without too much emphasis on the development of practical skills. The emphasis over the past decade has shifted more toward finding solutions to real-world challenges.
At the University of Pennsylvania, we’ve retooled our program to emphasize hands-on learning. We’ve worked hard to maintain the level of academic rigor, while simultaneously ramping up the ability of students to do hands-on work.
We want our students to synthesize and coalesce information into things that are concrete and realizable. Today’s students are very savvy and know how to find the information that they need. So now it’s much more about how the students can utilize that information to improve our society.
Changemakers: Tell us a little more about some of these hands-on projects. How do you think that they could have a positive impact outside of the classroom?
Fiene: For one, the technology developed for the Alpha Bike could definitely end up in a real bike (though that was never the focus of the project).
Another senior project from a couple years back was a collapsible solar generator. A student saw a need for it in the real world, as irrigation pumps require electricity to be wired to them.
The generator closes up like the petals of a flower during the night or when crops are being sprayed. When it is opened, the generator can be positioned towards the sun. Now, instead of running electrical lines into the fields, you’re actually generating electricity right in the fields.
Another group worked to improve the way that CPR mannequins feel, so that people practicing CPR can experience what it feels like when you’re dealing with a real body. They collected data from CPR trials, applied math to model and simulate the experience, and finally created a more realistic mannequin. Their work on this project can have profound effects for lifesaving.
The outcomes of the senior projects are really as diverse as their imaginations!
Changemakers: How do you see STEM education playing a role in encouraging innovation in this country?
Fiene: I believe that hands-on, practical STEM education prepares our students to be innovative leaders for tomorrow. It allows them to see problems from a multitude of different perspectives. Open-ended projects like the Alpha Bike help the students learn to define needs, address those needs, create prototypes, and test their ideas until they work.
Changemakers: What makes STEM education such a critical investment for our society?
Fiene: Our world is what it is because of technology. So much of the progress that we’ve seen is driven by STEM. Science and engineering truly underlies so much of our current world. Yet it is surprising how little our society seems to value these contributions, especially in planning for our future. It is almost as if we don’t recognize that STEM is absolutely integral to the continued advancement of our society!
Changemakers: You’ve laid out a couple of really complex challenges. How do we address them?
Fiene: It’s hard to say exactly how we’ll convince society as a whole to invest in STEM. One thing I know, though, is that inspiration is a powerful tool.
I was fortunate enough to attend the final space shuttle launch a few weeks ago. Now, while I was obviously excited to be there, it was almost more exciting to see the faces of hundreds of children who’d been up all night, absolutely awestruck by what they were there to see.
I know that space was a big inspiration for me, and I hope that today’s children will have similar motivators. We need a push, like the space race, to catalyze students to become inspired and excited about STEM topics.
On a much smaller scale than a shuttle launch, I think that student-designed projects like the Alpha Bike also play a role in inspiring young people. While our senior projects do have the potential to impact the broader world, I think that their biggest impact is actually in motivating people to be creative and pursue their ideas.
When younger students see that these engineers were once at their level, they understand that if they work hard, one day they’ll be able to make their ideas come to life, too. People that are drawn to create can see what others are doing. They can see that engineering is interesting, unique, challenging – and that it’s something they can achieve.