Colleges Rev Up Dull Engineering Courses Dartmouth, MIT Mix Practical Fun Projects with Math Classes and Lectures on Theory
Keith Henderson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
ENGINEERING schools are known for heavy theory and difficult math. Usually, they are not places for humanities or social-science majors.
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. …