Steven Leeb believes in hands-on learning. And by that he doesn’t mean hands-near learning, or hands-on-a-keyboard learning. When you’re preparing engineers for the realities of their working lives, says the associate professor of electrical engineering, it has to be hands-on.

Wanting students in a freshman seminar to learn about topics like the laws of mechanics and dynamics, for example, Leeb and his co-teacher had them build battery-powered go-carts. Then, at semester’s end, the group that Leeb had advised got to race their creation against one built under the tutelage of James Kirtley, a professor of electrical engineering and colleague of Leeb’s.

“Racing provides a kind of excitement that we can’t create any other way,” Leeb explains. In another course, he has students build electric motors like the ones in hand-held vacuum cleaners. Why that type? “These motors have to spin really fast,” explains Leeb, “so you need a design that produces a decent amount of power and a high speed –– much faster than what you need in a blender, for example.”

In a departure from electromechanical exploits, he also has had freshmen build wooden toys for homeless kids. The toys, distributed at Christmas, ranged from puzzles to “a shadow box with characters from Sesame Street.”

But what matters more than the specific projects is the rationale for his approach. Part of it is grasping the link between theory and practice. Hands-on work, says the faculty member, helps students “understand why the math they’ve been studying in class can be very useful in the real world.”

At a more basic level, though, Leeb seeks to give students “the feel” of engineering. “Hands-on involvement is one of the defining qualities of an engineer,” he says. “I want students to have the experience of imagining something, building it, and seeing it work.”

Following Lights

Leeb’s commitment to hands-on education reflects his own experience. About age nine, he started creating rudimentary robots out of wood and other at-hand materials. Four years later, he reached the pinnacle of his robot-building career while a resident of Charleston, S.C., then homeport for his Navy physician Dad.

“This was when Star Wars had just come out,” he recalls. “I made a pyramid-shaped thing that rolled around, and followed lights and sounds, and could back away from walls and stuff.”

That invention won the local science fair. It was as an MIT undergraduate, though, that Leeb first came to understand the immense power of learning based on first-hand experience. The lesson came partly from watching certain faculty teach-by-doing. Among them was Walter Lewin of the Physics Department, then and still a teaching legend.

Lewin, says his former student, figured out that MIT’s biggest lecture hall, the cavernous Room 26-100, could be turned into a low-energy microwave cavity. “He mounted a light bulb on an antenna,” recalls Leeb, “and he’d walk around mapping the microwave field according to where the light bulb would glow or dim. It was terrific.”

Another memorable experience came from a grad student, Wai Lee, who earned his electrical engineering/computer science Ph.D. in 1983. The assignment: build yourself a computer. “This was at a time when a personal computer cost $5,000,” says Leeb. “Wai Lee put together plans for machines that we could build for only $250 each. He even custom-tailored an operating system for us.”

Only since he became a teacher himself has the faculty member come to appreciate the work Lee did. “He had an unbelievable amount of energy,” says his former student. “He was just an amazing guy.”

Teaching’s Rewards

Leeb is also known for the energy he pours into his teaching. It has helped earn him honors like his department’s Junior Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching and the prestigious, Institute-wide Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.

His methods also win praise from students and former students –– among them Byron Stancil, now studying for his master’s in mechanical engineering.

Stancil was a key builder when Leeb decided he needed a fleet of go-carts. “Steve gives you a lot of room to try to figure things out on your own,” says Stancil, “but he is there when he needs to provide guidance and make sure things stay on track.”

Yet however much Leeb is respected for his teaching, it hasn’t come at the expense of research. One heralded invention lets you modulate the intensity of a fluorescent light’s arc, in the process transmitting signals that can carry highly useful data.

The system is called Talking Lights, and an example of its use would be as a “private address” mechanism for the visually impaired in places like airports. If a user had the needed hand-held receiver, says Leeb, the system “could direct them to specific gates, to the ticket counter, or wherever they need to go.” For Leeb, though, teaching is clearly special, particularly when it’s a hands-on enterprise.

“Things happen when you’re working at the bench with someone that don’t happen anywhere else,” he notes. “And for me, that’s where the fun is.”