Cultivating Big Ideas at Mountaintop

Big ideas need room to grow. They also need quite a few whiteboards.

A sea of whiteboards—some immaculate and untouched, others already covered with colorful preliminary thoughts—awaited the teams of students who arrived Tuesday morning at the massive former Bethlehem Steel research bays that today serve as home to Lehigh’s Mountaintop project. 

Now in its third summer, the Mountaintop initiative will host 38 projects, 151 students and 44 faculty mentors at the top of South Mountain for the next 10 weeks.

On opening day, students and mentors arranged tables and chairs, rolled out rugs, set up desks and even café umbrellas, defining the spaces in which they will collaborate on projects that include:  

• Designing exoskeleton appliances to aid in rehabilitation for patients with muscle disorders of the hand

• Examining the geography of bias using data-driven techniques to answer novel questions about how biases vary geographically, and the underlying reasons for why

• Creating an agricultural system that can be maintained in extreme conditions with as few supplies as possible

• Exploring the technical aspects of ocean wave energy, an emerging source of clean, renewable electricity

• Using advanced design tools in combination with vernacular materials to advance the quality of specific building components (blocks, roofs, windows, doors, structure) in the context of West Africa to improve environmental performance and occupant experience

Several students and mentors began moving in early that foggy morning, ready to tackle the unique challenges of Mountaintop.

"It was exciting to have the first students and mentors here at 7:30 AM to set up their work spaces,” said Alan Snyder, vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies. “It will be more exciting to see what they do as they explore their topics and develop their ideas.”

Some participants arrived already equipped with big ideas. Some are starting from scratch.

Hanna Brosky ’18 will participate in the LaunchBayC Student Accelerator, which is supported by the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation and this year will include three tracks for students to pursue the advancement of their entrepreneurial ideas and passions.

As a rising sophomore, Brosky has little experience in creating her own product or venture, and that’s the whole point of her LaunchBayC track.   

“We come into this completely open-minded and clueless,” Brosky said with a laugh. “That is great. That is the environment for innovation. ... Right now I don’t know what it’s going to be and I don’t know what it’s going to entail, but just setting up this space is innovation. So far I’m really excited.”

Mentor Chris Kauzmann ’13, ’14G, managing director for LaunchBayC, looks forward to the weeks ahead.

“I am excited because I want students to take—and I believe they are going to take—complete and full ownership of their projects,” Kauzmann said. “I don’t have to bribe them with a grade or threaten them with a grade because everybody here has self-selected to be here with their own passion to follow. ... They’re coming in with an idea to do something, in various stages—rising sophomores all the way through graduate students that just finished the technical entrepreneurship master’s program. Some have established ideas and others literally no idea and they’re still working on what major to decide on.”

“The classroom environment can be really constrictive,” Brosky said. “[Here] we’re getting paid to do what we want to do in our own time and in an environment we just made. So it’s amazing.”

In an area labeled “Fort sDev” on a whiteboard at the heart of their team’s space, Chase Brewster ’16, Erin Sowell ’16 and Carolyn Koch ’16 gathered around a table. Each will work on a separate sustainable development project, the details of which remain—for now—somewhat undefined. Brewster, Sowell and Koch’s teams will address sustainable 3D printing, filtration and ocean farming, respectively.

Brewster is most excited about the final product. 

“It’s very open,” Brewster said. “When you do chem labs freshman year, you fill in the blank. Here [we say], ‘Well, here’s our goal. Let’s see what’s going to happen.’”

Koch, on the other hand, is looking forward to finding out how the team will get there.

“It’s all about the process,” she said. “That’s what I’m really excited about.”

Under a white café umbrella set up for a “summery vibe,” Celia Fung ’15 met with third-year graduate student Nick Ungson and mentor Dominic Packer, associate professor of psychology. Their group—which also includes Devon Carter ’16, Nathan Keim ’17, Alexandra Pizzuto ’17 and Audra McComb ’17—plan to examine how intergroup biases vary by location.

“[Biases are] still out there and it’s having a huge effect,” Fung said. “This project is significant because we’re actually examining data and delving more into the subject.”

“Our goal is to find something new that hasn’t been studied before,” Packer said. “We’ll see if we can pull that off.”

For more information about the Mountaintop initiative, visit

Photos by Christa Neu