Who's Teaching Whom?

It's getting harder to tell the students from the teachers.

Main story: The Future is Younger Than You Think

More: Brainstorming the Future, Cruise (Out of) Control, Little Hands Teach Big Hands, Workscapes of the Future

Just ask Chris Behier, a manager in the kinetix division at Autodesk, the world's dominant supplier of computer-aided design tools. Behier had been using the company's software, including AutoCAD, to create parts for his Mustang GT convertible race car -- specifically, to design stereo boxes that could fit two 12-inch subwoofers in the trunk while preserving 80% of the room. Hunched over his workstation he had a flash: Why not get some young people involved? Autodesk executives are big fans of "school-to-work" training programs and the place is full of eager interns. But Behier thought too many of the interns were doing "boring lab work" that lacked concrete deliverables. Behier loved to watch these kids play computer games and was awed by their skills. If they can do that, he figured, why can't they design parts for my car?

Judy Morgan, who runs Autodesk's intern program, loved the idea. "It seemed like a natural," she says. "For the kids it was a great way to learn not only software skills, but the basics of engineering and how corporate teams are set up. For the managers, well, students add juice. It's great to work next to somebody who has new ideas all the time."

Trading experience for freshness. That simple idea eventually became the Mustang Project. Behier collected a team of five kids who agreed to digitize the parts of his disassembled car using AutoCad and AutoCAD designer, to digitize the parts, "animate" the parts they'd just digitized using the company's new multimedia software, 3D Studio Max, and then electronically reassemble the car. The result would be model of the Mustang that would allow people to analyze its inner workings. The process itself would be a model for demonstrating the power of equipping wet-behind-the-ears kids with state-of-the-art digital tools.

It was an undeniably imposing project -- and Behier felt his conventional "leadership" role challenged almost immediately. Not that the students were unruly. They showed up on time. They paid attention to his 3D drafting tutorials. Each of the three subteams (suspension, engine, body) measured the components from its part of the Mustang and digitized the parts. Behier didn't even mind when tools and rigging began taking over his office.

What was unnerving was that Courtney Waters, a high-school senior and proud owner of a less-than-mint-condition Fiat, pretty much moved in to Behier's office as well -- and quickly approached his mentor's skill level. The more time Waters spent with the car and the software, Behier realized, the more he felt like a peer rather than a student.

"Courtney started off not knowing anything about AutoCAD. After four months coming in every afternoon for at least two hours, Monday to Friday, he was cranking out parts like no tomorrow," says Behier. "He'd start saying to me, 'No no no no no no no. You gotta try this way, it's a lot faster.' I'd look at his technique and say, 'You know, you're right. Okay fine. Don't ask me anything now, okay?'"

Behier is joking; he's proud of the kid's talents. And the Mustang Project has been a roaring success, in no small part because of the principles Behier used to organize it. First he erased traditional lines between student and teacher. He wasn't threatened when Waters demonstrated a knack for programming; the whole point was to let kids stretch toward their full capabilities. Second he made sure the project didn't feel "corporate." On weekends, he jacked up the car and held project meetings in his garage. Sometimes he ordered pizza for everybody. Other times he took the crew out to Sears Point, a 2.5-mile race course with lots of zigzags and 12 turns, to show them the basics of racing and help them get the feel of the car on the road.

Finally he understood that kids with talent don't just want to learn. They want to see the benefits of learning. Quickly. One day last summer, Behier took Waters down to Megacycle Engineering, a local business that grinds high-performance cam shafts, and landed him a part-time job designing parts with AutoCAD. It was a way to get him a different kind of experience and put some money in his pocket.

"At the beginning, when I was just doing regular intern stuff, I thought, 'I'm not going to be getting paid for this and I'm going to be spending a lot of time after school,'" recalls Waters, in a confident-but-not-cocky tone. He even wondered whether flipping burgers (for money) might not be a better option. "But with the Mustang Project, I started coming in all the time. Personal interest: that's what you need for motivation."

Waters, now a freshman at the University of California at Davis, got much more out of his Autodesk experience than a project that interested him. He has killer AutoCAD skills. He's the proud owner of a modified Fiat, thanks to all he learned from Behier about cars. And he's hooked on racing. "Chris took me to racing school," Waters beams. "That more than makes up for not getting paid."

Behier, who recently left Autodesk to become a software quality manager at an engineering firm, but who remains involved with the kids on the Mustang Project, learned some important lessons of his own about rewards. "This isn't going to benefit Autodesk in the short-term financial sense," he says. "I thought we'd design parts and animate them and see what we could do in a virtual sense. But the company is going to profit by seeing the beautiful creations its software can make, and seeing what kids can do with it."

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