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A Spectacular Failure or Something Truly Remarkable

Project-based creative inquiry at Lehigh University

By Ben Dedman

August 18, 2021

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation was an industrial behemoth, at one point the second-largest steel manufacturer in the United States. A hundred years later, at the turn of the twenty-first century, it was bankrupt.

For many at Lehigh University, a private research university near the company’s former headquarters in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, this rise and fall symbolizes the creativity, adaptability, and entrepreneurial mindset needed to thrive in a shifting global economy. “Bethlehem Steel was a giant, but it didn’t keep up with the times,” says Khanjan Mehta, vice provost of creative inquiry at Lehigh.

Starting in the 1980s, Lehigh University began acquiring Bethlehem Steel’s massive research laboratories on South Mountain. Since 2013, this campus has housed Lehigh’s Mountaintop Initiative. Each summer, teams of students and faculty mentors spend ten weeks working on ambitious projects focused on local, national, or global problems and opportunities. This summer, more than two hundred students are working on more than forty projects.

The students get no grades and earn no academic credits for the summer Mountaintop session, though students who make a full-time commitment can receive a stipend. The projects continue during the academic year through a series of Creative Inquiry courses led by faculty mentors.

“These are not one-summer or one-semester projects,” says Mehta, who has directed the Mountaintop Initiative since 2017. “These are ambitious moonshots, three-to-five-year projects that might result in a spectacular failure or might accomplish something truly remarkable.”

Many Mountaintop students work throughout the academic year and come back summer after summer, working on the same project for years (and, in a few cases, even staying involved after graduation). Kristi Morin, assistant professor of special education, has mentored the same student team since January 2020. Working with organizations such as the Sierra Leone Autistic Society, Morin’s students are developing culturally appropriate screening and educational materials to help diagnose and treat autism in Sierra Leone, where autistic children are often ostracized and stigmatized. Morin’s students conduct literature reviews focused on disabilities in West Africa, develop new autism diagnostics, and conduct fieldwork to get feedback from partners and research participants. The goal is to implement a context-appropriate alternative to Western autism screeners, which are usually expensive, filled with jargon, and not tailored toward international cultures. One popular autism diagnostic in the United States, for example, asks children to sing the “Happy Birthday” song and blow out candles on a cake. “If a child doesn’t know how to do that, is it because they have autism?” Morin asks. “Or is it because this is not something they typically do in Sierra Leone?”

Mountaintop projects are guided by a creative inquiry ethos based on a series of mindsets such as global citizenship, ethical decision making, or entrepreneurship; skills such as critical thinking, negotiation, or teamwork; and portfolios that help students communicate their work to potential partners or employers. “The creative inquiry ethos is just empowering students and faculty to think differently and take action,” says Bill Whitney, administrative director of creative inquiry.

Before it launches, each Mountaintop project typically undergoes six months of careful planning by the faculty mentor and the Office of Creative Inquiry. Approved projects are always interdisciplinary; committed to making a sustained and measurable impact; and integrated within campus, local, or global communities.

Faculty mentors “are supposed to be the guides on the side,” Mehta says. “They support students, cheer them on, and sometimes add more turbulence.” They also provide ethical oversight, ensuring that students build reciprocal relationships with partners and carefully follow research requirements from Lehigh’s institutional review board.

Mehta mentors a team of students working with health care providers in Sierra Leone to screen pregnant women for dangerous conditions such as urinary tract infections and preeclampsia, a complication that can cause high blood pressure and damage internal organs. Lehigh students developed a test strip that costs two cents. With recent approval from the Sierra Leone Pharmacy Control Board, the students are developing effective messaging strategies, mapping out supply chains, training the trainers, and slowly integrating the test strips into the Sierra Leonean health-care system. “Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world,” Mehta says. “About a half million people now have access to this device that was designed by our students in our labs. We are actually saving lives!”

Though most Mountaintop projects are ultimately successful, students must learn how to deal with failure along the way. “In the classroom, if you make a mistake, you might get a C,” says Julie Miwa, associate professor of biological sciences. But these projects teach students that an initial setback can be a “stepping stone to solving a problem,” Miwa says. “After students graduate, there won’t be exams or a syllabus. They have to go out there, find the problems themselves, and solve them.”

Miwa leads the NeuroSalon, a team of student artists and scientists investigating the origins of creativity in the brain. Originally a genetics project, Miwa’s team helped to discover LYNX1, a gene that suppresses learning in adults. “When we’re really young, we’re like sponges for new information,” she says. But, thanks to the LYNX1 gene, “this window of plasticity ends.”

In experiments with adult mice, her students discovered that turning this gene “off” can enhance learning and increase creativity. Now, they’re investigating what such a capability could mean for humans. “It can rewire the brain,” Miwa says, with potential benefits for adults with memory problems, learning deficits, or illnesses such as stroke. It might even help adults learn a language more quickly or pick up a new hobby. NeuroSalon seeks to convey these complex neuroscience concepts through the arts using storytelling, music, art, and dance.

“The more we understand how our brains work and the conditions that are required for creativity, the more we can access it,” Miwa says. “This could be beneficial not just for solving the world’s problems but also for enriching a person’s life.”

Not every project focuses on scientific or medical breakthroughs. Whitney mentors a student team that uses social-justice theatre and art methods to raise awareness about mass incarceration within the Lehigh Valley region. His students work with local community partners to meet with incarcerated people in local jails and lead creative arts therapy sessions, conduct interviews, and collect narratives. The students then perform the stories they learned about social justice and incarceration to audiences across the valley.

Many of the projects are grant-funded, and more than half of Mountaintop students publish their work in a journal or present at a conference. Thomas McAndrew mentors the Modeling COVID-19 project, a team of students helping to inform public health decisions by building probabilistic forecasts of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties. In the summer of 2020, one of McAndrew’s students seemed ambivalent about the project, but by the end of the summer, the student bought in. They rejoined the project team for the fall and spring semesters, presented at a conference, and leveraged the work into a full-time position at General Electric. The student “just crushed it,” McAndrew says.

The pandemic has forced some of the Mountaintop projects to suspend fieldwork, and most to transition their activities online. By the end of 2020, Lehigh students had spent much of the year learning from home, and most first-year students had never even seen the campus. “Students were frustrated,” Mehta says. “There was a huge happiness deficit.”

To help students build a sense of belonging and connection during the winter break, the Office of Creative Inquiry hosted a three-week virtual Sustainable Happiness Institute in January 2021. “There were no lectures or assignments,” Mehta says. “Students were engaged, nonstop, on a series of team adventures and personal quests.”

Students survived virtual escape rooms focused on global trends and the future of work. They had candid conversations with a billionaire and a Zen Buddhist monk. They baked bread, cooked a new dish, and brought a parent or grandparent to class. “The idea was to get students out of their comfort zone and doing a lot of things that they’ve never done before,” Mehta says. “How else will they find things that make them happy?”

As a final project, students used the skill sets and mindsets—such as sustainable development, social innovation, and the entrepreneurial process—that they developed in the mini-projects to build a blueprint for a “multimillion smile enterprise” that would create happiness in a sustainable and scalable manner.

“The science of happiness tells us that happiness is as much outward as it is inward,” Mehta says. “How do we prepare students to lead a life of impact—to do things that matter to them and that create happiness for themselves and others?”

Years after the first projects launched, the Mountaintop Initiative and Office of Creative Inquiry continue to evolve. In 2018, the Office of Creative Inquiry created three Impact Fellowship programs. Students apply to receive funding, take Creative Inquiry courses, and make a one-year commitment to work on a long-term, ongoing project on campus, in the Lehigh Valley, or in a global community. Twice a semester, the teams of fellows present their projects to a twelve-person panel of external experts and industry leaders, who—like in an episode of Shark Tank—ask difficult questions, provide feedback, and give students a grade.

“It totally changes the traditional course dynamic,” Mehta says. “Now, the faculty mentors are not the ones grading students. The faculty mentors are on their team, guiding students to get more points out of the referees and create real, tangible impact in the world.”

With these ongoing partnerships and contributions from local experts and organizations, the Mountaintop Initiative and Office of Creative Inquiry have become fixtures of the Lehigh Valley.

“When we reach out to a new community connection in the Lehigh Valley, almost 100 percent of the time they’ve heard of our projects,” Whitney says. This external feedback from community partners, whether at home or abroad, helps students see the impacts of their work and keeps them motivated semester after semester, summer after summer.

“Students don’t come for the credits,” Mehta says. “Students want to change the world, and we give them that opportunity.”

Photo courtesy of Lehigh University.


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.