At some point near the start of his mechanical engineering design course, Gaurav Ameta hands his students four sheets of paper and six paperclips. He gives the class a simple goal: Build something that can hold a coffee cup as high as it can, with the ability to hold as much as weight as possible. Everything else is left to the students.

“Some of the smarter ones ask what type of coffee cup. But it’s up to them to ask questions,” says the assistant professor. “In this class, there is no right answer. There are many right answers. But there are many more wrong answers. This class is real world engineering.”

Last fall, Ameta asked his students build an unmanned aerial vehicle using his 3D printer. Again, there were few instructions. The drone had to carry half a pound of cargo and land on water. A few drones attempted the daring water landing. But in the end, only a quad copter completed the assignment and survived intact. Still, building an autonomous flying machine layer by layer in the classroom sparked the students’ creativity.

“Some of the students complain because they’re used to learning from a book and writing down everything I say and memorizing it,” says Ameta. “But others, those who have done internships or worked for a firm, have said this work is very similar to what they’ve done there.”

Not only do the students have to find innovative solutions while working in a group, they must also aim for a specific outcome, something that translates to work in the real world. “They must know what the customer wants,” Ameta says. “They have to think like the customer and find solutions to problems that may arise.”

Students enter Ameta’s class versed in computer-aided design and analysis, so when he hands them four blank sheets of paper and a handful of paperclips, the technology sophisticates sometimes balk.

But other students jump right in. “They hang the cup form the ceiling or off the white board,” he says, marveling at the simple ingenuity. “They are not used to thinking like this.”