Every year, a ceremony takes place in the mechanical engineering department at Tatung University. Professor Lai Kuang-che (賴光哲) leads students in taking an oath: “I sincerely swear to make it my life’s mission to put all the knowledge learned from my four years of college to good use. For myself, my dreams, my satisfaction and my family, I swear that from today onward I am a creator and an inventor.”
The ceremony usually ends with Lai demonstrating the theory of friction by making fire, which symbolizes the start of class and also gives students the chance to reflect on humanity’s most ancient innovation.
According to Lai, the department espouses creation and in the 25 years that he has taught at the university, Lai has spared no effort in trying to encourage his students to become inventors by helping them develop basic engineering skills, techniques and a sense of aesthetics.
Traditional educational methods prioritize theory over practice, but good teaching requires more than just chalk and a blackboard, and this is especially true when the subject being taught is mechanical engineering, Lai said, adding that engineering students must work with their hands to understand the theories they are learning.
Gesticulating enthusiastically as he walks around the classroom wearing his signature overalls, Lai lectures as if he is preaching, saying: “Only humans solve problems by creating things.”
To teach the creative process, Lai has his students start with a basic task: creating a paper airplane.
“You start by drawing a design, then making the plane,” Lai said, adding that if the airplane does not fly well or at all, student know that their design needs more work and they can experiment with changes to fix the problems.
An inventor must first have the capacity to create something, before solidifying his or her technique and refining their sense of aesthetics, Lai said.
It was this ethos that inspired the department’s famed annual paper airplane competition, in which more than 100 freshmen compete to see who can design a plane that can fly for longer than nine seconds.
Lai said that a student once designed a plane that flew for 13 seconds, adding that winning the contest was an illuminating experience for the student that “took him to another level in his life.”
Lai’s primary goal is to cultivate the spark of creativity he believes is present in every student’s mind. To achieve that end, he asked the university to set up a factory that mechanical engineering students can use to create anything they like.
Some of his graduate students used the faciltiy to invent a mechanical robot that can move around without batteries by using screws, iron bars and wooden blocks instead, Lai said, adding that simple adjustments to the placement of the screw caps on the robot’s head and the curvature of the wooden blocks forming its legs can determine the size of its steps.
The robot not only showed off the students’ creativity, but proved that they had understood the basic theory of mechanics, Lai said.
Lai also uses landmark innovations, such as the steam engine, to inspire his classes.
Lai has established a camp that his students are required to attend during summer or winter vacation where they learn how to build a steam engine from scratch.
Lai said the camp was aimed at giving students a feel of the invention that had brought about the dawn of the modern age. He joked that the camp was a rite of initiation that “transformed students from non-entities into true men and women,” because it was transforming them into engineers.