A few years ago, students in Dartmouth College's introductory engineering class invented a bicycle wheel to help young children maintain their balance. A recent challenge for the current class? Tipsy college students.
When professor John Collier learned that Dartmouth President Jim Young Kim planned to visit his class, he decided to have students show off their problem-solving skills by attacking a social problem instead of an engineering dilemma. Binge drinking _ defined as consuming five alcoholic drinks in two hours for men and four drinks in two hours for women_ was an obvious choice, given the national initiative Kim launched last spring aimed at reducing excessive drinking on college campuses. And it was a topic that students had plenty of experience with.
"They leapt at it," Collier said. "They came up with a ton of really interesting things."
The students were divided into groups and asked to work on one of four problems related to binge drinking. They had an hour to evaluate the problem, come up with solutions and rate each one based on how well it met the specifications of the problem, including whether a solution would work well for different age groups and genders.
One target was a practice known as "pre-gaming," in which students drink in residence halls before going out for the night. The students came up with an idea to create a freshmen-only facility that would include the social elements of fraternities and sororities _ games, music _ without the alcohol.
"The sense was you've got this real problem of students wanting to go to fraternities, but they're underage and they're nervous about it, so they tend to sequester themselves and imbibe," Collier said.
Another group proposed getting student emergency medical workers involved in helping fellow students determine when an intoxicated friend needs medical attention. The student EMTs already help out at athletic events, Collier said, and could be an asset in social settings as well.
Last spring, Dartmouth launched the National College Health Improvement Project, a learning collaborative focused on measuring what works to reduce binge drinking on one campus and sharing it elsewhere. The project will bring together teams from 32 campuses to share their experiences and help one another test strategies back home.
It makes sense to approach the problem from a public health perspective given that close 40 percent of college students engage in binge drinking, Kim, a doctor and humanitarian known as a leader in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and other diseases, said in announcing the project in May.
Dartmouth sophomore James Kennedy said he didn't expect to be talking about binge drinking in an engineering class, but the exercise made sense given Kim's focus on the issue. He was part of the group that focused on pre-gaming, and said it was interesting to dissect the reasons why students engage in the behavior.
Though not every problem can be solved through engineering, Kennedy said the process students are learning _ for example, identifying any biases implied in the statement of a problem _ can be applied to all kinds of problems.
"It's really more about a technical way of listening and responding, and justifying every decision you make," he said. "And having students acting as engineers looking at the problem I think is a really good way to do it. ... It's a really unique intersection."
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