Photo: Michelle Park

Engineering the Perfect PB&J

Freshman Academy leverages peanut butter and jelly to explore computer science and systems engineering.

In a recent class, Joseph Greenfield, a USC Viterbi senior lecturer, demonstrated the disastrous consequences of unclear instructions. Like a computer, Greenfield followed a student’s instructions to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich exactly as stated. He started by flinging slices of bread across the room because the student failed to explain precisely how to take the bread out of the bag.

Such miscommunications are common in the computer sciences and engineering field. Greenfield, who teaches one of the Engineering Freshman Academy courses, focuses on developing students’ engineering skills, exposing them to the National Academy of Engineering’s “14 Grand Challenges” and deepening their appreciation for the different fields of engineering. And peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are part of the plan: Greenfield’s challenge to his class was to engineer the perfect PB&J and optimize the given materials efficiently. Of course, there was a catch: Not only would the students have to design a game plan to assemble the maximum number of sandwiches, precisely to specifications, in less than five minutes, but they also had to take part in this competition in teams of five to mass produce the PB&Js.

Not exactly “Top Chef,” but Greenfield’s assignment encompasses several different fields of engineering. Before beginning the challenge, each team had to produce written instructions for each position on the assembly line. Students were randomly placed into six groups of five people each. Potentially, an industrial and systems engineer-to-be might be placed next to a chemical and biomedical engineer-to-be, replicating real-life situations in which a diverse group of engineers must work together to solve one of the 14 Grand Challenges — or in this case, to expertly combine peanut butter, jelly and white bread.

In total, each class produced more than 200 sandwiches. All of the beautifully crafted PB&Js were then donated to the local food bank so that others could enjoy the taste of 21st-century engineering at its best.

Click here for photos from the event.