Just One Question: Have You Had an “aha” Moment in Engineering?
I came to Dartmouth with the dream of entering the Tuck-Thayer major, the best of engineering with a solid underpinning of business savvy. The only problem was when I entered Dartmouth with the class of ’46 in the summer of 1942, the nation was at war. After several months of relatively carefree freshman life, I had to decide about serving in the armed forces. The Navy had a strong presence in Hanover, and the V-12 program offered Thayer students a continued study in civil engineering leading to a degree, then officer training school, a commission in the Civil Engineer Corps, and service in the Seabees. When I told the recruiting people about my Tuck-Thayer dreams, they said, in effect: “If you want to study business you may end up with a commission in the supply corps, but more likely as an able-bodied seaman in the fleet. Is that what you want? We’re looking for civil engineers who will earn a degree and be both a top-level technologist and a leader of men. Make your choice.” That’s when I had an “aha” moment and opted for civil engineering. As the timing worked out, I received my degree and commission and military training, and arrived in the Philippines on the very day that the peace treaty with Japan was signed. I am a member of the luckiest generation. Once I got hooked on civil engineering, and on construction in particular, that is the path I followed.
— Sam Florman ’46 Th’46
My professional engineering experience has been involved with building construction, usually as a construction manager and in recent years as a forensic engineer. Some projects were major constructions, such as the New York State Exhibit at the World’s Fair and Harkness Medical Research Building at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center, but many were of moderate size. Even after 56 years in engineering, I experienced my “aha” moment this past March in Puerto de Valle, Mexico.
Engineers Without Borders (EWB) had received a request from the village of Puerto de Valle for an assessment and design to improve the water supply for the 2,000 inhabitants. I was on vacation in nearby San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and volunteered to do the preliminary reconnaissance. The drilled well has been unreliable and contaminated by poor sanitation practices. Inhabitants draw water only three hours each day. The adjacent river, used as backup, is polluted. I spent maybe four hours in Puerto de Valle, but I consider it a most rewarding engineering experience because I was able to contribute to the solution of the problem in support of this Mexican rural population. As a civil engineer I felt at home in evaluating the well and distribution system to the 300 separate houses. I never would have obtained permit approval in New York for a well only 50 feet from an open sewer ditch. I took three water samples, one from the Lerma Santiago River and two from the well distribution.
My ability to speak Spanish at an intermediate level was important to my communications in Puerto de Valle. I gathered together drawings and documents from the village elders and made my report to the EWB chapter in Tucson, Ariz., which has the design responsibility for improving the water supply system. A new well located above the community and away from the sources of contamination may be the solution.
— Harlan Fair ’53 Th’54
Memorial Day 2010: My “aha” Thayer day, perhaps my penultimate such day. My wife of 53 years and I are in what is euphemistically called “downsizing.” We dispose of physical objects, all of which evoke memories of which we cannot dispose. Today I discarded several dozen books from Thayer days: Strength of Materials, Concrete Design, Timber Structures, Soil Mechanics, Mathematical Analysis, and more. These are obsolete, irrelevant except to one matter: what they and Thayer enabled me to accomplish through a career and a life, full of satisfaction and dedication to the essence of the Dartmouth liberal education and the Thayer School discipline. So now, as I approach my 80th birthday, after a life with countless “ahas” attributed to Thayer and Dartmouth, downsizing comes easily. All readers will eventually be where I am, and will revere their Thayer faculty as I revere Carl Long and others.
— Albert G. Melcher ’53 Th’54
I don’t recall any “aha” moment, but I did have a “?” moment. At Thayer I began to wonder what computers could not do. After about 55 years in the computer field, I still don’t know the answer to that question. However, I’m beginning to get a feel for what computers can — but maybe should not — do.
— Pete Knoke Th’56
So much of school is not about learning exactly how to do a particular task, but rather how to go about solving the diverse problems one may face later in life. Two years after I graduated from the Thayer School of Engineering I started working at the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in northern California. One of my very first assignments was to design a special screw made from a rare-earth metal. Of course, I knew about metal screws from the hardware store, but I didn’t know how to design one from scratch, least of all in an unfamiliar metal. How would I decide how many threads per inch and how deep should the threads be? Should they be square or round or some other shape? How much clearance would each thread need? How would I show the machinist exactly what I wanted? To make matters worse, the ramp angle of a screw thread — how fast it climbs — depends on the frictional properties of the metal, and rare earth metals have very different properties than brass or steel. So I couldn’t just copy the dimensions of a brass or steel screw and expect it to work. I’d never even thought about how to design hardware involving exotic metals, and Thayer School had not taught me about nuts and bolts in such detail. Fortunately, I remembered that Thayer School had taught me how to solve problems, and soon I finished designing that screw and gave all the dimensions to the machinist to cut on a lathe. He thought it was pretty unusual too; he’d never seen a bolt or screw like that before. It was probably the most trivial engineering task I ever did, but I got a lot of satisfaction from the experience, and over the years have met many other engineers who didn’t know how to design a screw from scratch either. Thanks to Thayer School, my “aha” moment was realizing that Dartmouth had prepared me to solve all kinds of problems — trivial and difficult — with the scientific and engineering insights and skills necessary to tackle them.
— Philip E. Coyle III ’57
My “aha” moment came when I learned that my engineering drafting professor, Edwin Sherrard, was also a violinist in the community orchestra. This meant a lot to me because here, right in front of me, was an engineer and a musician, a violinist no less. His example gave me the impetus to keep right on with my musical activities, which became a lifelong devotion to choral singing and solo activities (I was in Paul Zeller’s Glee Club for three years). I learned that an engineer can be a person of many talents, and that a well-rounded life is good for the soul (and good for those around you as well).
— Jerome B. Allyn ’59 Th’60
After receiving my A.B. as an engineering sciences major at Dartmouth and Thayer, I followed Thayer Professor Sidney Lees to Boston, where we founded the bioengineering department at the Forsyth Dental Institute. Our principal project, “Looking into Teeth with Ultrasound,” became a five-year graduate program that, with Sid, remained an extension of my Dartmouth-Thayer experience, leading to a master of science in electrical engineering from Northeastern University. In 1973 I became responsible for continuing development of a real-time ultrasound imaging system at the University of Washington. The objective was to detect atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery, one of the primary causes of stroke. The first patient I looked at was scheduled for surgery the next day to remove a major arterial blockage that had been diagnosed, correctly, by standard x-ray angiography. To our collective dismay, the artery looked just fine (blood-filled) with our new ultrasound machine! An ultrasound system produces images by transmitting pulses into the body and detecting echoes from minute structural variations in soft tissues. Therefore, if the patient’s plaque was not differentiable from blood it must not contain these structural characteristics. Then came the “aha” moment: Though plaque and blood might look the same, as seen by pulse-echo ultrasound, they would not sound the same if they were examined with Doppler ultrasound, which would recognize flowing blood by the Doppler shift in the frequency of minute echoes scattered by the blood cells. I realized that by integrating imaging and Doppler into the same machine one could see both stationary tissues, such as artery walls that are normally reflective, and simultaneously differentiate very weakly reflective tissues, such as the patient’s plaque, from blood, by the Doppler shift. This discovery led to the development of duplex ultrasound, the early and current standard for every medical ultrasound imager. In 1974 I performed the first examination of a carotid artery by duplex echo-Doppler ultrasound on my technician, and the first duplex echocardiogram on my 4-year-old daughter, Jennifer.
— Frank E. Barber ’62
After consulting with companies on environmental issues for about 30 years it occurred to me that my clients’ problems were not environmental problems but rather business problems. Viewed through this lens, a portfolio of solutions emerged that led not only to solving problems but also to delivering bottom-line results. Such solution sets have come to be known by phrases such as pollution prevention, life-cycle product development, sustainable supply chain management, product stewardship, and triple bottom line management. The “aha” moment set the stage for my professional morphing into academia (about half time), where I teach sustainable business practices in the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. My courses are delivered at both the M.B.A. and undergraduate level and teach future business leaders how to grow a business and prosper by managing the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. My courses are a mix of lectures and projects carried out for local companies, including large corporations such as American Electric Power and Limited Brands. The other half of my time I spend as executive director of two nonprofits focused on recycling: the Waste Not Center, which takes items that would otherwise be discarded by businesses and individuals (about 60 tons per year) and turns them into educational and creative supplies for teachers and artists; and the Association of Ohio Recyclers, which works to instill recycling best practices in businesses and promote a regulatory environment conducive to recycling in Ohio.
— Neil Drobny ’62 Th’64
Several years after graduation, working at Metcalf & Eddy in Boston, I was assigned to work with Doc Sawyer on industrial waste designs of his “concepts” reports to clients. Clair Sawyer had taught at MIT for 25 years and wrote the book on sanitary chemistry (Sawyer and McCarthy). I was in awe of him and learned something every minute spent in his office (shared with a lab assistant). After tannery waste, poultry waste, wool dyeing waste, and optical grinding waste, we moved into a major metal finishing waste project (Scovill Manufacturing Co., long gone). I spent hours researching technologies and concepts applicable to our particular needs. At one juncture I was struck by the assertions of two very well-known experts who were completely contrary one to the other. Perplexed, I trotted into Doc’s office and presented him with this conundrum. He absorbed the material, observed that my assessment was quite right, lit up like a Christmas tree, and gave me an “aha” moment I have always treasured: “Young man, we are going to learn something here!” That moment has been with me for a lifetime of seeing, reading, and puzzling over conflicting expert opinion — it’s a learning experience.
— Tom Jester ’63 Th’64
Friday, November 22, 1963. President Kennedy assassinated. Students wondering if classes will be called off. Professor Taylor says that life goes on, and there will be an exam in our next methods engineering class on Tuesday. We walked in and sat down. Professor Taylor passed out newspaper clippings of the weekend’s events. The exam was to redesign the funeral for more efficiency. Using techniques learned in class, there were many things that could have been done in different order and timing that would have saved idle time and provided something to watch for the thousands of people who waited for long periods for things to happen. Those lessons of analyzing and effectively improving activities served me well throughout my careers, first 20 years with GATX in Chicago and then 15 years at Coopers & Lybrand/PricewaterhouseCoopers as a consulting partner and, even now, 10 years into retirement, in my volunteer activities.
— Rick Van Mell ’63 Th’64
Carl Long taught a course that was essentially an introduction to structural engineering, where we had to figure out the stresses on bridges and things like that. For the final paper the class was divided into groups of two and told to design a structure made out of balsa wood and Elmer’s glue that fit within a certain set of shape parameters. We were supposed to design as strong a structure as possible relative to the weight and also predict the breaking point of the structure. Randy Wallick ’69, who was the football captain of our class, and I got our only A’s in engineering when we figured out that balsa wood was such a lousy material (both inconsistent and unpredictable) that the design was irrelevant. The key was to use as much Elmer’s glue as possible. It turns out that glue has a much stronger weight-to-strength ratio than balsa wood. Because the structure was so simple to build, rather than come up with an elegant theory for how strong it would be, we simply made six of them and broke five of them ourselves. The paper we submitted was less than two pages, our structure was orders of magnitude stronger than the next best submission, and we were the only team that was able to estimate the breaking point within 50 percent. We also got the prize for the ugliest-looking structure — but that’s engineering.
— Clint Harris ’69 Th’70
I’m the president of Bio-Detek Inc., and I’ve developed a handheld device that reminds a rescuer how to perform CPR. Using accelerometer technology, the device actually measures the depth of each chest compression and gives feedback to the rescuer to “push harder” if compressions are too shallow. We wanted to enable 911 calling in the device when the “aha” arrived — put our software in a cell phone. We launched PocketCPR for iPhone last fall and have had more than 65,000 downloads. My hope is that within five years, all smart phones will arrive with my software preloaded.
— Mark Totman ’71 Th’72
When I was a Tuck/Thayer student, Tuck ran a business simulation in the fall for all of the second-year students. This simulation lasted for a week. We went to no classes. The simulation consumed us 20 hours per day for the week. Three of my classmates and I did not participate. We ran the simulation — one manager for each “world” of six companies. I managed the three world managers. Each manager took the inputs from each company in the world and entered it into the simulation. We then ran the simulation. All went well until the third evening. I pushed my managers to get one more set of data entered for each world. In one world, one critical process step was skipped and I did not catch it (and we found out from the subsequent experience that when skipping this step, recovery is not possible). A world crashed and burned prematurely. One-third of my classmates were deprived of a major learning experience. In the big picture, it was a cheap lesson for me, but a major “aha.” When doing mission-critical work, you cannot afford to overstress the system. There is a downside to fatigue, and if what is being done is critical, the downside can be disastrous.
— Mike Sulaver ’74 Tu’77 Th’77
I don’t have an engineering “aha” moment. It’s been a steady application of technology, trying to make it fit for purpose, along with steady improvements in the measurements and the answers that are derived from them.
— Steve Askey ’76 Th’77
I’m an architect (fisherarch.com) with an undergraduate engineering degree. I was working to win the trust of husband-and-wife clients who wanted to build a home above their glass factory that would be like an old-time foreman’s shack perched on a warehouse roof. However, my early analysis had demonstrated that code and structural restrictions prevented their dream from becoming a reality. The “aha” moment occurred when I proposed cantilevering the home out 50 feet over the warehouse from a concrete block base garage that would be located behind. This was an outlandish idea for a number of obvious reasons, and I risked losing the client if they thought my idea was unsound. Yet, despite my misgivings, they were intrigued. The result — the Emerald Art Glass Home, or “the mother ship” as it has come to be known — became what we believe to be the world’s longest cantilevered home. Why was this an “aha” moment? When they gave me the go ahead, I realized that although jumping off the Ledyard Bridge at midnight with my engineering major pal Ken Marra ’82 as a college junior may not have been a strong idea, sometimes risking everything is necessary in order to move forward.
— Eric Fisher ’82
I have had a number of “aha” moments all along my career, and it is probably why I studied engineering and why I enjoy figuring out how things work, finding solutions when things don’t work, and coming up with ways to explain and demonstrate these concepts to others. I think I became an electronics engineer due to the application of calculus to electronic circuits. I was really blown away when we converted equations from the time domain to the frequency domain to solve problems that otherwise seemed impossible. Professor Stratton’s teaching methods were key to many “aha” moments, and a solid understanding of electronics that excited and motivated me to learn more and get into circuit design when I left school.
— Kim Quirk ’82 Th’83
I discovered the power of “nice” in managing/motivating people — not only do you get world-class results, but people actually like working with you. Now I’m trying to influence other managers to adopt this and drive a culture change. I have discovered some great authors in the process: Syd Finkelstein (Tuck), Robert Sutton (Stanford).
— Sumit Guha Th’88
I find that I had little “aha” moments almost every day of my Thayer School experience and that they continue through my career. I think that is what lets me know how much and yet how little I know about engineering even today. Every engineering challenge results in a time when I finally figure out my design solution, and that is when I say, “A-ha!”
— Scott A. Sabol ’88 Th’88
Professor Stratton knew me better than I knew myself, and immediately exhorted me to get a Ph.D. I did so — not in engineering, but in accounting! Professor Stratton’s early confidence in me and Professor Hansen’s subsequent guidance played a big role in where I am today. I went on for my Ph.D. at Wharton and now teach at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
— Venky Nagar Th’90
After graduating from Dartmouth, I entered graduate school at the University of Michigan. I ended up taking a design management graduate course taught commensurately with an undergraduate engineering design course. We were given a design challenge to move a brick the greatest distance using only a prescribed set of materials. I severely underestimated the mass of the brick, so when it came time to demonstrate our designs, my device collapsed under the weight of the brick. When the results were tallied for the class, mine was the only device with a negative distance traveled! An embarrassing moment to be sure, but I learned a valuable lesson: Know your design specs!
— Durward Sobek ’91
The first thing that comes to mind when I was thinking back over engineering “aha” moments was when I was introduced to the idea of stress and strain. It made so much sense! The basic relationship between the two is so well captured on the graph where visually the modulus, yield, etc., just come to life.
— Brian Mason ’03 Th’05
I remember sitting in Thayer’s ProE lab in the basement doing work. It was a typical all-nighter spent at Thayer, and I was trying to focus on my work but this alarm kept going off for the door next to all the bike racks on the north side of Cummings. When you entered that door, you could go upstairs into the Great Hall or downstairs to the machine shop, ProE room, and project lab. Dartmouth had recently installed a campus-wide door entry system where you had to swipe your ID past a sensor to get into buildings after-hours. If doors were left open for more than 30 seconds or so, an alarm would sound until the door was closed. If you needed to brace the door open so you could go grab something heavy from your car and carry it in, everyone would have to endure the alarm until you closed it. So this alarm just kept going off because there was something wrong with the self-closer or the door, and every time somebody left, the door would remain ajar and the alarm would go off until I went up to close it. At last I decided to go figure out how to fix this. It didn’t seem there was much I could do about the door, so I started looking at the security system to figure out where all the wires were flowing to. All of a sudden I had this “aha” moment and realized there’s an electrical box on the wall that seemed new and sort of out of place. So I run down to the project lab, grab a screwdriver, and come back to see what’s inside. I loosen the screw, slide open the cover, and inside there’s just a single Piezo electric buzzer between two wires. I remember thinking to myself, “It really can’t be this easy. I can’t believe somebody installed this in an engineering school in plain sight, where sooner or later one of us would figure out how to disable it.” So I removed the buzzer, closed up the panel, and tossed the buzzer into a drawer in the project lab like it was a spare part. I went back to my work and never heard the alarm again. Months later, nobody had replaced the buzzer. I’m curious if now, several years later, anyone has yet replaced it.
— John Turner ’04 Th’07
The reason why drawings must be perfectly neat and legible is that you lose basic arithmetic skills when standing at the mill. I have cut straight through holes I just tapped because 5-2.3 does not equal 3.7.
— Nolan Reis Th’09