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Creating delivery routes for scaled-down campus, distance-learning students get primer on systems engineering

Deliver an apple across campus to the Johnson Museum. Get an ice cube over to the Plantations. Spirit a golf ball to Schoellkopf Field. These were just a few of the tasks that distance learning students had to perform -- quickly and efficiently -- during an exercise in systems engineering set up in Duffield Atrium Aug. 21.

With "buildings" represented by PVC pipe constructions, the tasks were the culminating activity of systems engineering master's degree students who were on campus for one week, but who normally take their coursework from far-flung places.

The students are on track to graduate with Cornell's only distance-learning degree. The systems engineering distance-learning master's program was accredited last spring. For the second time in as many summers, program leaders brought first-semester students, who usually work full time during their coursework, to campus for a weeklong, intensive one-credit course called Leadership Laboratory.

"We can teach a great deal via distance learning," said lecturer and distance learning program coordinator David Schneider, who led the delivery routes exercise. "But there are certain group activities where the students truly benefit from being physically here."

Taught by senior lecturer Frank Wayno along with Schneider, the course divides the students into teams that remain intact throughout the remainder of their degree program and, hopefully, aid them in forming professional and personal bonds, Schneider said.

The introductory course includes a primer on systems engineering and classes on leadership, personality types and how to work in a group. Although the program ranges from two to three years, depending on the student's individual schedules, for many of the students it's their first time on campus, and one of only two required visits.

"They will be taking the whole program via distance learning, and they will have to work together on project teams of various sorts," Wayno said. "A lot of evidence suggests that that goes a lot smoother if you find some way for people to humanize each other."

The delivery routes project took place on the final day of the Leadership Laboratory. At the beginning of the week, they were given a Request for Proposal involving the rapid delivery of several "supplies" -- golf balls, apples or ice cubes ¬to various locations around "campus," elegantly represented by white PVC pipe structures.

The task involved devising a system that would make these deliveries take place efficiently. With budget and design constraints, the students set about building systems that involved everything from remote-controlled Tonka trucks to cardboard ramping systems, complete with conveyor belts and switchable turnstiles.

The teams often divided themselves into specific roles to ease the process, such as manager, maintenance and actuator. They also had to be cool under pressure; one team, whose system involved a cardboard ramping system, had to readjust during their time trial when their masking tape and cardboard conveyor belt malfunctioned.

Student John Winklhofer, an engineer at Lockheed Martin in Syracuse, saw the purpose of the exercise as managing tasks in an accelerated learning environment. After all, he said, in the real world, project team members who barely know each other often have to come together and work quickly and effectively.

"There is no one person who could build all of this," he said. "It requires a team."

For more information on the Systems Engineering Distance Learning program, contact Systems Engineering at 607-254-8998 or

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Blaine Friedlander