Thayer Shines Brightly With Students

The Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth

The Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth

A long walk down Tuck Drive will bring you to Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Entering the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center — one of Thayer’s two buildings — we found ourselves surrounded by state-of-the-art machinery and students using them to build and test elements of various projects.

These engineering students were presented with two options upon declaration of their interest in the department (which, notably, is not a separate school in the vein of other engineering institutions, such as Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering.) The Bachelor of Arts in Engineering is the first option, which can be easily completed within four years at Dartmouth. The Bachelor of Engineering is, however, a more demanding degree that often takes five years to accomplish, although some students manage to squeeze it into four. The department also boasts an alumni network 4,000 strong, including many who chose paths other than engineering.

Thayer is the second-oldest of Dartmouth’s three graduate schools, after the Geisel School of Medicine, which was founded in 1797. Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer graduated Dartmouth in 1807 as valedictorian, after which Thomas Jefferson appointed him to a fledging school for Army engineers called West Point. He graduated in a single year, commissioning as a second lieutenant and serving in the War of 1812. Recognizing his talent, he was sent to France to study at the (in)famous  École Polytechnique, a military engineer school known for its academic excellence and harsh culture. Returning stateside, Thayer was appointed the Superintendent of West Point. During his tenure, West Point became the premier engineering college in the nation. As a result of his work, Thayer is considered the “Father of West Point,” and is often mistaken for its founder. He continued his work in the Corps of Engineers, constructing many forts that still stand today. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1834, and received his last promotion directly from President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In 1867, Thayer donated $40,000  (equivalent to $5,000,000 in 2015) to Dartmouth College to endow the Thayer School of Civil Engineering. By the time the school opened in 1871 with six students, Thayer had increased his gift to $70,000 ($9,000,000 today). While the school steadily grew over the nineteenth century,  it expanded rapidly between 1933 and1945 to include other fields of engineering, a dedicated physical plant, and a graduate program. 1961 saw Thayer update its institutional philosophy, while the early 2000s saw it improve its physical plant.

For a closer look at Thayer, The Review interviewed Senior Associate Dean Ian Baker. Baker, in his tenth year as a dean, oversees many aspects of the engineering school, both supervising the use of space in the buildings as well as teaching a core course required of everyone planning on majoring in engineering. In our interview, we sought out exactly what has brought Thayer into the spotlight on campus recently. Baker commented “There has been significant increase [in students] over the last five years, but that’s true of engineering everywhere.”

Further investigation shows that perhaps students are under the impression that engineers are receiving jobs in the hyper competitive job market that exists today. The National Association of Colleges and Employers ranks engineering top in the category of starting salaries with an average starting salary of $62,998, followed by computer science and math in second and third, respectively.

Baker was also able to give us more insight into Thayer and what sets it apart from other engineering schools. The unified undergraduate program Thayer employs contains a common set of core courses and then supplemental courses specific to the types of engineering. This provides a mutual understanding of general engineering, allowing Thayer students to communicate and work together easily. Thayer also provides students with amazing resources, including a machine shop, remodeled just two years ago, which any student who has been certified can use. Electronic engineers are on staff to aid in solving students’ issues as well. Students are also provided with computer software that helps to streamline the design and production processes.

In addition to serving as the Associate Dean, Baker also chaired a community board overseeing and discussing the construction of a new building for the engineering school. The new building will be located next to MacLean where the parking lot is. “We have yet to figure out where the car park goes,” Baker mentioned, wryly suggesting that it was the only problem in the plan. Baker also serves on several academic boards for the school. Interestingly, no one knows how the increased academic rigor brought on by Moving Dartmouth Forward will affect the engineering courses, which Hanlon likely overlooked when he suggested that classes weren’t rigorous enough.

If one can believe it, even with all his involvement in the department, Dean Baker still has time to teach ENGS 21, Introduction to Engineering, a course required of all engineering majors. However, Baker informed me that one third of his students were non-engineering majors taking his class out of interest (and to receive the TAS distributive). Thayer is one of the few schools where non-majors can so easily take an engineering class and, with the growing popularity of engineering, more students are doing so than in previous years. In ENGS 21, students are split into design groups and are tasked with coming up with a solution to a given problem. To follow up on this interesting concept, I spoke with a freshman who described her group’s project to me, “We are making a container that uses UV rays to heat food. And it will even be able to send a text alert when your food’s done!” The course teaches the basics of solving everyday problems with new innovative ideas.

In the closing of the interview, I wanted to identify and discuss the intangible bait drawing herds of engineers and non-majors to Thayer. “I’m simply excited by it,” Baker responded when I asked him the question, “Why engineering?” Baker went on to explain how, most recently, he has been working with graduate students and a post-doctoral student studying ice, snow, and the energy of materials. The specifics were far over my head. Baker revealed to me what seems to be the heart of engineering at Dartmouth: Thayer provides a broad engineering education and teaches its students how to solve problems. This problem solving ability is what lies at the core of the department. The high starting salaries and ability to find jobs suggests it is a skill worth learning, even for those not majoring in engineering.

Much of Thayer’s uniqueness stems from students’ ability to shape their engineering education to fit their interests. As mentioned above, the school offers two undergraduate degrees: the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Engineering. In doing so, Thayer finds a balance between the diverse liberal arts education all Dartmouth students seek in coming to the College on the Hill and the teaching of technical skill sets with which an engineer must enter the professional world. The Bachelor of Arts, formally considered a degree in Engineering Sciences, consists of necessary prerequisites along with a student’s selection of specialized, higher-level engineering courses.

Thayer also offers liberal art degrees in Biomedical Sciences, a major tailored to pre-health students interested in studying engineering as undergraduates. Thayer works with The Geisel School of Medicine to provide pre-health engineers with the highest level of exposure to both engineering and medicine possible. The school also offers an engineering-physics major for those interested in both engineering and physics.

Thayer, like other schools and departments at Dartmouth, offers students the ability to modify their major with relevant fields of study that might result in a more personalized academic experience for the student. This also provides students with the opportunity to specialize their degree, just like one might at a more traditional engineering school. For example, a student interested in chemical engineering can modify an Engineering Sciences major with Chemistry. The opportunities are endless, and as long as the student’s choice of courses constructs a reasonable degree, the school offers him complete power to determine what he studies.

For those with less invested interest in studying engineering, the school offers minors in Engineering Sciences, Materials Sciences, and Human-Centered Design. These paths consist of fewer courses, but the minors still provide a powerful skill set that makes for an extremely impressive set of professional tools, especially when paired with any other major offered at the College.

For those seeking only a taste of the experience that Thayer has to offer, there are various courses that offer amazing introductions to the realm of engineering. ENGS 21, for example, is popular among many undergraduates who simply want to have an engineering course under their belt in order to experience what so many seem to love.

Research, an integral part of any university, is also far from scarce at Thayer. Professors are happy to employ students as research assistants. Typically, a student is encouraged to approach a professor whose research projects appeal to him or her. Thayer emphasizes its desire to involve first year students in engineering research through their First Year Research Programs. Alongside the experience, these projects often provide hourly compensation. WISP, Women in Science Program, also works closely with Thayer to provide various opportunities to female engineers seeking research projects. Thayer also offers two foreign study exchange program: one to Bangkok, Thailand, and the other to Hong Kong.

To develop the student perspective on the undergraduate department at Thayer, Nick Whalley, a sophomore engineering student modifying his major with chemistry, also spoke to The Review about his experience in Thayer. “I really like how at Thayer it feels like every teacher is invested in you as a student.” Nick, as a sophomore,  has only finished four courses in the department, as many of the courses require science and math heavy prerequisites taken during freshmen year. In several of his courses, Whalley got first hand experience with the machine shop, particularly a Scanning Electron Microscope. “[The microscope] allows us to achieve upwards of 10,000-times magnification,” he informed us. The ability to have a liberal arts education really set aside Thayer for Nick, “Taking three engineering courses every term would get monotonous, and I really enjoy having the ability to explore more subjects and what they have to offer.”

Santiago L. Breuer also contributed to this report.