Penn State’s Learning Factory Challenges Students to Solve Real-World Problems

11/15/2021

Research shows that project-based learning better prepares students for their futures. In the engineering world, it's not enough to simply have theoretical knowledge and technical breadth. You also need that spark of innovation and creativity that often only comes when you mix education with real-world experience.

Enter the Learning Factory. What started as a shop for mechanical and industrial engineering students, and a facility to support those students’ capstone projects, has grown into the College of Engineering’s primary maker space. The Learning Factory now also coordinates capstone projects for most of Penn State’s College of Engineering and a couple departments outside of the college, too. 

Innovation and ingenuity are at the heart of this initiative, which has been going strong for about 27 years. To date, nearly 13,000 Penn State University Park students have participated in more than 2,750 projects sponsored by more than 620 different organizations. 

“Since the beginning, the goal has always been to provide hands-on learning opportunities for our students,” notes Learning Factory director Matthew Parkinson. “We are now the largest multidisciplinary client-sponsored capstone program in the world.”

The Learning Factory Provides Resources and Training for Students

There’s a unique symbiosis in the way that the Learning Factory’s university and industry partnerships benefit students, and the projects students work on then benefit the clients and industrial sponsors. It helps students engage deeply in their learning and develop innovative ways of thinking, and it also connects industry with both faculty and potential future employees, as students link practice and theory by working on real-world problems. 

The interactive, hands-on facility further gives students access to modern prototyping, design and manufacturing facilities. Students have multiple workbenches, power tools and hand tools to work with. The facility is also equipped with machining computer hardware and software and 12 workstations. The Learning Factory has 3D printing capabilities in addition to welding equipment and equipment for assembly and testing. 

Parkinson says, “We provide resources, equipment and training for students to pursue nearly any type of project: class projects, passion projects of interest to an individual student, prototypes for a student startup, whatever. All of these opportunities are free to students.”

The Learning Factory Showcase Celebrates Innovation

Each semester, the Learning Factory celebrates the work that students and sponsors have accomplished, with its project showcase. The showcase features projects across multiple disciplines, including biomedical engineering, computer engineering, energy engineering, engineering design, industrial engineering and more.

Before COVID, the showcase was hosted in the Bryce Jordan Center, but it was forced to pivot to a virtual showcase for 2020 and Spring 2021. While the move was intended to keep everyone safer during the pandemic, it had the unexpected benefit of opening the showcase up to visitors around the world. Visitors can even participate by voting for the projects to receive the Best Video and Best Project awards.

“We’ll be back in the BJC this fall,” says Parkinson. “We’re holding [the showcase] on the afternoon of Tuesday, Dec. 7,  but we will have an online presence as well. The showcase is an opportunity for the students from Capstone — as well as several other engineering courses — to present their work to a wider audience. This includes demonstrating their prototypes. It’s an awesome event and it’s free and open to the public.” 

The Learning Factory: A Humming Machine in the Happy Valley Ecosystem

Penn State plays a pivotal role in nurturing tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. The Learning Factory is yet another tool the university offers, to help shape budding innovators while also supporting the community as a whole. 

For example, the Learning Factory also boasts partnerships with PennTAP and other entities in the region, enabling it to help entrepreneurs and startups to identify the funding they may need to offset Capstone project fees. Additionally, “Many of our sponsors are local, including startups and entrepreneurs,” says Parkinson. “The Learning Factory provides a very accessible opportunity for companies to engage with Penn State faculty and students, and to utilize their energy and expertise.”

As Parkinson also points out, “The Learning Factory is the sister entity to the new maker space in the new James Building. While our facility isn’t open to the public, the new facility will have access opportunities for the public.” The James Building, located near the University Park campus, is a state-of-the-art hub where local startups and students can access maker space in addition to coworking and collaboration areas. 

To learn more about the Learning Factory or sponsorship opportunities visit https://www.lf.psu.edu/ 

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