Up close with Frank Kelso

Earlier this winter, competing teams stormed onto the ice in Mariucci Arena for a showdown involving speed, strength, and strategy—but it didn’t have anything to do with Gopher hockey. Instead, five-person teams from the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) pushed hand-built cardboard sleds across the ice to discover which one goes the farthest and straightest, cheered on by fans and classmates.

It’s all part of the CSE First-Year Experience, led by Frank Kelso, the college’s new 3M Chair in Experiential Learning. He came to the U with 12 years of experience as a systems engineer at MTS Systems Corp. and a passion for bringing real-life experience to the classroom.

Tell us about these sleds

We wanted a hands-on experiential learning project for CSE’s 1,000 first-year students, so we’re building on the Powderhorn Park Art Sled Rally. Powderhorn is a neighboring community to the university, so I thought this would be a nice way to integrate into the community. The students will be building an artistic and structurally sound sled. A few weeks after our event, they can take their sleds over to Powderhorn Park and participate in the community event.

What are the rules?

They have to create something that’s structurally sound and also a work of art. They can have as much cardboard as they want, and we’re also supplying them with sheets of PET plastic, which is commonly used in soda pop bottles, but we’re going to restrict them to those materials. If everyone starts with the same basic materials and constraints, it becomes a test of ingenuity rather than a test of how deep your pockets are. There are ways to make cardboard strong enough to support a person. You can fold it into beams, you can honeycomb it, you can learn about buckling and bending and section modulus and how that resists bending, you can figure out what the different failure modes are. Then you put it all together into one working package that won’t fall apart.

“Experiential learning is a cycle, where students try something, they learn from failure, they incorporate the experience into the next try, and then hopefullly they get it.”

And they have to work together?

Five people to a team is just right for giving them a taste of team dynamics. They’ll have partners who have their own ideas about how things should go. There will be students who want to take charge and other students who want to fight them to the death. They’re going to hear lectures once a week, and two of the lectures are on how you survive on a team.

How does this fit into the CSE First-Year Experience class?

These are freshman who are making the transition from home to school. I think we forget sometimes what a big change that is. The first half of the class helps them adjust to college life and figure out their career aspirations, what classes they might want to take, how to settle in, and what sorts of activities and clubs are available here at the University.

The second part of the course is the sled project, which is meant to help them think outside the box. They have to take lots of freshman chemistry and physics and math, where they do problems 1 through 5 and the answers are in the back of the book. But that’s not how the actual workplace works. In the real world, there’s no single right answer.

So that’s where experiential learning comes in.

Yes, that’s the experiential learning component—the fact that they can apply their knowledge, and fail, and learn from their failure, and modify their solution. It’s a cycle, where they try something, they learn from failure, they incorporate the experience into the next try, and then hopefully they get it.

What does your new chair and other funding from 3M allow you to accomplish?

I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I’ve been teaching four or five classes a year. I love teaching. But this has let me step back from the classroom and focus on developing an experiential component to this first-year seminar. Without the 3M funding, I would be up to my eyeballs in grading papers and putting together assignments. It’s basically enabling this whole sled project.

There are 27 faculty members who have agreed to take one section of freshmen for this first-year seminar. That’s also funded by 3M. Without that, I don’t think they could find a hole in their schedule to teach a class of 40 freshmen. It’s pretty brave of them to step outside of their expertise. Suddenly, they have college freshmen asking them every question under the sun.

How do they like that?

They’re finding it enjoyable. They get to relate to students in a more personal, low-key way. And students get to learn from them and ask them questions like, “How do you innovate? Where do you get your ideas? What did you learn from your failures, and how did you pick yourself up and keep going?”