With engineering on the rise at Dartmouth, Dean Joseph J. Helble outlines opportunities for an expanded Thayer community.
Interview by Karen Endicott
Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 announced in November of 2014 that expanding engineering was one of his top priorities for the College. “Thayer School is a site of research impact, innovative experiential learning, and interest in learning technologies,” he said, “It is also a unit of academic excellence well below critical mass by any measure.”
With expansion of engineering a key part of President Hanlon’s drive to increase Dartmouth’s experiential learning opportunities, entrepreneurial activities, and scholarly impact on the world, Thayer Dean Joseph J. Helble talked with Dartmouth Engineer about the future of the school.
There are three reasons growth is important. First, demand for an engineering education is reaching unprecedented levels. We have roughly 110 majors in the senior class, which will be an all-time record number of students graduating with engineering degrees, surpassing the record we set just last year. The numbers of matriculating freshmen and sophomores who say they’re interested in engineering are even greater. We don’t have enough faculty to meet this demand and maintain the class size and the intimate, closely connected experience that we offer. We need to increase faculty to reduce the student-faculty ratio, increase project and research opportunities for our students, and develop new courses to challenge our students at all levels of the curriculum.
Second, by expanding the engineering faculty we can enhance the liberal arts education for all Dartmouth students. By making a real engineering experience part of a much larger number of Dartmouth students’ undergraduate education, Dartmouth can take a leadership role in defining what a liberal arts education means in the 21st century. Every educated citizen, every worker, will need to deal with technology. It’s a technology-driven world, and it’s going to be a technology-driven century. It’s hugely important for all Dartmouth students to gain some familiarity with how technology is conceived, how it’s developed, how it works. I would love to have the capacity to give every Dartmouth student the opportunity to take a design-thinking class like Peter Robbie’s ENGS 12, or to take ENGS 21, our project-based introductory engineering course. We already have 50–60 non-majors a year taking ENGS 21. More want to take these classes but can’t because we don’t have sufficient capacity. All Dartmouth students should have the opportunity to get a real project-based engineering innovation experience like this as part of their education.
Third, we want to expand the scope of our scholarly work, particularly in energy and at the interface between engineering and medicine. Through the faculty we’ve hired, we’ve been building expertise in key problem-based areas—in alternative energy, power electronics, protein engineering, tissue imaging. We’ve worked with faculty in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth to establish the NIH-sponsored Dartmouth Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. I would like to see more opportunities for our graduate and undergraduate students to engage in cutting-edge research and for Thayer to be a leader in working on applied problems in these areas. We’re already an entrepreneurial leader—with one in four of our faculty having started a company based on their work.
An added benefit of more sponsored research is that it allows us to have more state-of-the-art analytical equipment and research tools in house—for graduate and undergraduate students alike.
WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF GROWTH?
We want to significantly expand the faculty—perhaps by as much as a factor of two—over the next decade. If we double the faculty, we can educate a larger undergraduate student body and still reduce our student-faculty ratio. I would love to see an increase in the number of students majoring in engineering at Dartmouth, including significant growth in the Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) population. We anticipate some slight growth in our Master of Engineering Management (M.E.M.) and M.S. student populations. By doubling the faculty, assuming our new professors are as successful as our current faculty, we expect our research funding will grow accordingly, supporting up to a doubling of our Ph.D. student population.
DO THAYER’S EXPANSION PLANS TAKE ACCOUNT OF CURRENT UNCERTAINTY SURROUNDING NATIONAL SOURCES OF RESEARCH FUNDING?
Yes, they do. The research funding climate is more challenging now than it was five or 10 years ago, but federal support for sponsored R&D remains strong; the United States continues to spend more on R&D than any other country. Like many of my fellow academic deans, I am concerned about the impact of sequestration on federal sponsored-research funding. Cutting support at a time when many other nations are dramatically increasing their investment in engineering education and scientific research doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The cuts are not helpful to expanding an economy based on technology innovation and entrepreneurship. The recent two-year federal budget deal was an encouraging sign that Congress appreciates the challenges created by sequestration-imposed uncertainty on the R&D climate in this country. I certainly can’t predict what’s going to happen to the federal budget five years from now, but there is bipartisan recognition that the research investment the federal government has made for many decades has paid great dividends for the country. I’m fairly optimistic that there will continue to be strong support for academic research—particularly engineering research that leads to technology development and job creation over many decades.
Our faculty have been very successful in getting their ideas funded—and that’s something that hasn’t changed in the tighter funding climate that we’ve seen in the past two years. If we continue to have high expectations, hire carefully, and bring in successful people, we will be able to maintain a well-funded research program well into the future.
WILL THAYER RETAIN ITS NON-DEPARTMENTAL STRUCTURE?
Our interdisciplinary, integrated nature is one of our great strengths—and also something that significantly differentiates us from the vast majority of our peers. When we make decisions about faculty hires, we think about the greatest needs within the school, rather than having a mechanical engineering department arguing its case and then an electrical engineering department arguing its case. It’s absolutely essential to me that through this expansion, we continue to function as a single, integrated school, and hire faculty according to areas of greatest need across the school.
HAVE YOU TALKED WITH PEOPLE BEYOND ENGINEERING ABOUT OPPORTUNITIES TO BUILD NEW INTERDISCIPLINARY COURSES?
Some. Those conversations happen best when it’s two members of the faculty who have a shared interest in a subject exploring what they might be able to do. ENGS 2: Integrated Design: Engineering, Architecture, and Building Technology, a course open to non-majors that engineering Professor Vicki May and studio art Senior Lecturer Jack Wilson have developed, is a great example of people with different perspectives coming together to teach students about architecture and design in a way that gives them a very different perspective than if they were simply taking an architecture class or taking a structural engineering class. Students are able to see the important interplay between those two fields. Professor Peter Robbie is lending his design thinking expertise to Dartmouth Roots, an initiative with the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy that is using design methodology to develop ways to improve life at Dartmouth. We also are exploring opportunities for integrated A.B./B.E. degree programs with computer science and physics. I expect many more opportunities like these will develop naturally as we build a larger faculty.
HOW CAN THAYER MAINTAIN ITS SENSE OF COMMUNITY AS THE SCHOOL GROWS?
Thayer’s sense of community comes up in virtually every conversation I have with faculty, students, staff, and alumni—people who are excited about the opportunities this growth presents for Dartmouth and for Thayer, but who want to be sure we maintain the close community that helps make Thayer such a special place.
By growing our faculty and reducing our student-faculty ratio, we can do an even better job of giving all students the opportunity—through the classroom, through research, through interactions in places like the Great Hall—to get to know many members of the faculty well, and to count them among their close mentors and supporters. This is a part of Dartmouth culture that reducing class size and the student-faculty ratio will only enhance. Some have pointed out that with growth we may reach the point where a single professor will probably not be able to know every member of the graduating class well, but I think we are already there, with graduating classes that will soon be more than 100. To me, what’s most important is having smaller class sizes so that all students have the opportunity to get to know several members of the faculty well.
By not setting up structured departments within the school we can help maintain a sense of community that’s school-wide. It’s important to continue all the little things we do to bring people together—from Thayer community events in the GlycoFi Atrium, to Thayer-wide events like the physical fitness challenge the school held last spring, to something as simple as free coffee in the kitchens. We need to think purposefully about the design of any new building so that it is structured to bring people together in common places, design elements that the Great Hall and GlycoFi Atrium do so well. Our practice of not having faculty offices grouped by disciplinary area is essential to maintaining a broader Thayer community. I expect this will continue in any new facility that we build, so that faculty and staff will continue to run into one another and our students on their way to the lab and the classroom.
WHAT FACILITIES WILL THAYER NEED—AND WHERE WOULD AN ADDITION BE?
Clearly if we grow the faculty substantially—certainly if we double the faculty—we’re going to need a new facility. It’s hard to believe, but we are already at capacity in the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center, even though it was dedicated only seven years ago. We already need more classroom, studio, and project laboratory space. We need more common space for our students to sit together and discuss project work or research. The couches in GlycoFi Atrium and the tables in the Great Hall seem to be nearly full almost all the time. We’ve just completely renovated the machine shop, so our needs there are not likely to be extensive. But we’ll need significantly more research laboratory space.
We all recognize that we will need a facility that offers maximum flexibility to accommodate change as some research areas expand over the years and others contract. For example, we’re thinking about open-concept laboratory space for some of our research laboratories to provide some of this flexibility.
It’s too early to say how it’s all going to fit together. We’re in the early stages of conceptualizing what a facility might be, and where near Cummings and MacLean it could be located. We had a first conversation at a faculty retreat in December. The next step is to engage an architectural and engineering firm to begin working with us to explore options and ultimately provide some conceptual design options for us to consider. We’ll need to have many conversations with faculty, staff, current students, our Board of Overseers, and others to refine our needs list and bring us to the point where we can engage an architectural firm in a formal design.
WILL VISIBILITY INTO PROJECT AND RESEARCH LABS BE CONTINUED IN A NEW FACILITY?
I certainly hope so—that is an important goal. Many visitors have told me how impressed they are by the sense of openness of our building, particularly of the project labs, and how our students are very willing to be interrupted, to discuss their project with anyone curious enough to ask. I am also often told how impressed our visitors are by the ability of our students to describe their work in a clear, articulate, and understandable fashion, and explain why it’s important, why the visitor should care. That’s such an important part of our programs and our community. This deliberate notion of open spaces with a lot of light, where visitors can see inside, wander in, and get a sense of the creative things that are happening—we absolutely want to preserve that.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE DEAN NOW?
This is a tremendous opportunity for Thayer, and for Dartmouth. I feel privileged to be here as the Thayer dean at this point in time. When I came to Dartmouth in 2005, I was not only impressed by Thayer’s history and record of accomplishment, but was excited by where the school was heading then. Sitting here nearly nine years later, I’m even more excited by the opportunity ahead of us now. With the growing Dartmouth-wide emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship, the recognition our students, programs, and faculty have received for their teaching, for their creativity, and for their research these past few years, and with the support of a new president for a larger role for engineering at Dartmouth, I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be dean.
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