Lehigh University students at the new Mountaintop Campus, where the school aims to shift the undergraduate experience, teaching students to think for themselves as they imagine their future careers. (Photo by Christa Neu, Lehigh University Communications and Public Affairs)

It’s the middle of October, and many college campuses nationwide are observing their traditional fall break with a few days off from classes. Even as the 21st Century economy demands more from college graduates and the price of a higher education skyrockets, today’s college students are spending less of their time on academic pursuits.

Various surveys of students show that they dedicate just a fraction of their time in college studying and going to classes. One study of University of California undergraduates found that students spend 13 hours a week studying, some three times fewer hours than they devoted to socializing with friends, watching television, and exercising.

By the time students graduate from college, their brains are hard-wired to the cadence of the daily life laid out by the nine-month academic calendar. They tend to think about their work in terms of 50-minute classes and five courses during 15-week semesters, with plenty of lengthy breaks in between.

But the working world is unstructured, with competing priorities and decisions that need to be made on the fly. College is very task-based: take an exam, finish a paper, attend a club meeting, go to practice. The workplace is more of a mash-up of activities with no scheduled end.

The outdated structure of undergraduate experience fails to prepare students to be engaged in their academic lives today or in their work lives in the future.

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The traditional college curriculum “waits too long to put people in over their heads,” Alan Snyder, vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies at Lehigh University, told me.

I met Snyder a few months ago at the university’s Mountaintop Campus, which is housed in three buildings the size of airplane hangers where Bethlehem Steel once conducted research and development.

Now Lehigh is bringing the dormant buildings back to life as a giant industrial playground for a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs. It not only looks completely different from Lehigh’s historic and shaded main campus two miles away, but the industrial-looking mountaintop also is designed to teach students how to think for themselves in an environment that emphasizes teamwork and hands-on learning.

Students earn a spot on the campus by pitching research projects and spending their summers working on them in an environment that mimics many of the careers they’ll pursue after graduation. They set their own schedules and let their curiosity shape the projects with little involvement from professors.

“There is an unleashing of student talent,” Snyder said. “We let them play, we let them explore, and they find a thrill in the ambiguity.”

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This past summer, nearly 200 students were sprawled out in one of the complex’s cavernous buildings working on 40 projects. One group of students was perfecting devices — created with the help of 3-D printers — to fit over hands of stroke victims to help them move. A few yards away, another group had set up a series of child-sized plastic pools to study the breeding habits of endangered fish, while on the other side of the building students were attempting to design a better cinderblock hut for residents of Senegal.

Lehigh University's Mountaintop Campus. (Photo by Christa Neu, Lehigh University Communications and Public Affairs) Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Campus. (Photo by Christa Neu, Lehigh University Communications and Public Affairs)

Because the students didn’t come together through an assignment within a specific class, the groups were often made up of a collection of people with random majors.

The students working with endangered desert pupfish to determine how they could prevent other fish from eating their eggs even included some biology majors from the local community college. When the students were in charge of their own learning, they seemed less interested in what they needed to do to get an A and were willing to take more risks by following their ambition.

“We care about what we’re doing because we designed it,” said one student who was working with the group on prosthetic hands. “It’s ours. No one is telling us what to do.”

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As I listened to the students’ stories, they reminded me of young school kids on their first day of second grade, excited to tell others about what they had learned. Why couldn’t learning be this engaging for students in college everywhere instead of the drudgery it often is? Why couldn’t the academic calendar be flexible so that students could work and learn at a pace similar to the rigors and uncertainty of the workplace?

Lehigh’s new campus is geared toward that goal, but it serves only a few hundred students. Boutique programs that experiment with the traditional curriculum are being tried elsewhere too, but again only with dozens or hundreds of students.

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars building palatial campus recreation centers to appeal to how students now spend their time in college, institutions should instead invest more in updating the undergraduate academic experience. Once students leave the confines of campuses, their learning is self-directed and not defined by someone else. We decide what skills or knowledge we’re missing, where to acquire that information, and how to fit learning into our daily routines.

Unfortunately, too many colleges are not preparing undergraduates for this new reality.