ENGINEERING schools are known for heavy theory and difficult
math. Usually, they are not places for humanities or social-science
But they are places where people learn to make useful things.
That can be exhilarating, which may be why students endure the
endless lectures on theory. It also may be why students from
diverse fields - history, government, music - join would-be
engineers twice a year at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering
to take Engineering Science 21.
Initiated 30 years ago, the course was designed to change the
way engineering is taught. At the time, engineering disciplines -
electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic, for instance - were thought
to be too compartmentalized. But in the world outside the
classroom, the invention of new products typically draws on a
combination of skills.
The course tries to duplicate that experience on campus. "The
idea is to give students, at a very early stage of engineering, the
full engineering experience," says John Collier, who has taught
Engineering Science 21 for more than a decade. The experience of
developing and testing a new product gives engineering students "a
context for the rest of their work" - all that tough theory. The
course is required at the Thayer School.
But it's open to everyone at Dartmouth, and word has gotten
around that it's fun, if hard. Typically, 10 to 30 percent of the
students are not engineering majors.
"Two friends were on me to take it," says Andrew Silvernail,
a senior government major. "They said it was the best course at
Dartmouth." The project he worked on this fall was a wheelchair
with wheels that can be shifted back to allow easier transfer to a
car or other tight area.
That project, like the other 15 in the class, occupied four or
five students - a "team" - for 10 weeks. It comes very close to
being full-time work, Mr. Silvernail and other Engineering Science
21 veterans say, with eight written and oral presentations before
a panel of professors, construction of a prototype, and product and
market testing. The latter involves contacting people likely to use
the item and developing a set of specifications. Students also talk
to people in related industries to see if their proposed new
product already exists. They find that companies are often willing
to donate materials.
The engineering school gives each team in the course $500 to
finance its enterprise. The school's machine shops and other
facilities are available, and Professor Collier and many of his
colleagues are on hand for consultation.
Each time the course is taught, Collier specifies a general
theme for all the projects. This fall it was "transportation."
The teams came up with an amazing array of inventions: off-road
roller blades with large wheels suitable for rough or soft
surfaces; a device that uses cellular-phone technology to locate
stolen bicycles; a mechanism for more easily mounting bikes on roof
racks; a sonar device to help truck drivers back into tight spots;
and an adjustable riding saddle that's more comfortable for horses,
to name just a few.
At least five of the students' creations are marketable, in
Collier's view. "I'd be astonished if they don't show up on the
market within two years," he says. Some of the teams are
considering applying for patents. …