Just One Question: What were the greatest strengths of your Thayer education?
We were detailing a steel truss—ink on velum, remember these?—when Professor John Minnich looked over my shoulder and advised me to never try making my living on a drawing board. It was a hunk of advice I took very seriously. I kept my work on the job in the field, never in the office. Then I found sales engineering at Caterpillar and never looked back. Thanks, John, wherever you may be!
—Hal Johnston ’47
There were three main lessons: learning how to think; converting those thoughts, logically organized, in both conversation and writing; and never giving up, even when you think it is the only way to resolve the “insurmountable” issue.
—Arville Hickerson ’56 Th’57
I was privileged to attend Thayer School as a full-tuition (plus room and board) student, enrolled in the five-year program. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity.
The greatest strengths of my education were twofold. First was the liberal arts background along with my technical education. This has benefitted me greatly as I progressed into engineering management and through life. Second was the first-rate teaching and a curriculum jam-packed with content. I didn’t fully recognize this until I went on to graduate school (mechanical engineering) at Yale. While there, I was able to reflect on my Dartmouth education and to realize its value. I greatly enjoyed and appreciated my graduate experience, and now realize that Dartmouth helped provide a very solid foundation. If I have any regrets, they are due to the fact that I was so busy keeping up academically and with my Thayer Dining Hall schedule that I had very little extra time to partake of the many extracurricular activities that Dartmouth offered, though I was a Glee Club regular and a Sig Ep brother.
—Jerome Allyn ’59 Th’60
A process of analytical thinking and problem solving.
—D. Barry Sibson ’60 Th’61
George Taylor’s course in engineering economics. And, as with all education at Dartmouth, leaning how to learn.
—Tom Jester ’63 Th’64
Thayer was part of a liberal education institution that required five years for a BE. I was not bound by a cookie-cutter curriculum. I was spoiled by the available contact with faculty. My wife recalls that I went ballistic if there were more than five students in my advanced engineering classes. As for the atmosphere, the path to inquiry was open. I created a curriculum that included microbiology and biochemistry before these topics became mainstream in environmental engineering studies. That Thayer encouraged independent construction of a curriculum implanted and nurtured the realization that solutions to problems come from many quarters.
The outcome was my professional career, which spanned 47 years and involved commercialization of new technologies. New is good, but it is also full of unknowns for the developer and the first adopter. I endeavored to translate the new into the desirable and dependable. I was trained initially as a classical civil engineer and evolved to be able to collaborate with protein chemists and biochemists to solve and optimize biotech purifying processes. At Dartmouth and Thayer I learned how to learn; in industry I continually sought new learning experiences. My Thayer education was based on thinking outside the box, and I used and applied this skill to harness new technologies that had not yet been conveniently “boxed.”
—Ivars Bemberis ’64 Th’65
Here are some positives, balanced with a few negatives. A positive: The opportunity to learn experientially during my first two engineering classes my sophomore year was life-changing. One year earlier, the first engineering course had been devoted to drafting. For me, that would have been terrible: Producing hand-drawn stuff with strict neatness requirements would have been difficult and very discouraging. Instead, my class was the first to have the new, solve-a-problem version of ENGS 21. That year the challenge was for each team to develop an energy-storing bicycle, to store energy going downhill and use it to help go uphill. This was a project way ahead of its time, but very cool. Among many other things, I learned to attach mathematics to physical reality and data. Our faculty team leader was a big help. I received my first A and an academic citation, much appreciated given my underwhelming academic performance during freshman year. The second sophomore engineering class enabled me to develop an air-bearing seismograph, again an opportunity to combine math and a prototype. Another A and another citation. Again, my instructor was a big help. These experiences were life-changing and probably then unavailable at any other engineering school in the country.
A negative at the time: The Thayer faculty included some professors who were not encouraging regarding new ideas or new technology. I wanted to learn about the then-emerging field of automata theory, the foundation of digital circuits; I was discouraged from doing this and told I wouldn’t understand it. Regarding the algebra involved, that was correct, but this missed the point: The then-extant electrical engineering signal processing paradigm was wrong for digital circuits, and automata theory was right. It’s not that the students were always right and the faculty always wrong—quite the contrary—but sometimes the students were right and the faculty were wrong, and the faculty were not prepared for this alternative. Later, during my senior year, I think, I knew more about probability and information theory than the faculty—a comment on them, not me (I was just getting started). Again I was told I would not succeed on a specific project. Fortunately, I was allowed to proceed anyway, and I was right. Even if I hadn’t been right, it was very important that students be allowed to make mistakes and fail—Dean Myron Tribus was very clear about this, but many of the rest of the faculty weren’t so sure. Decades later, while a lecturer in computer science at UC Berkeley, I watched undergraduates be allowed to create real integrated circuits (computer chips, in other words). Many of those students and the sponsoring faculty went on to change history. But even then, allowing students to actually do something and at the same time risk failure—chip design and fabrication was hugely risky and very expensive—was still a rare educational opportunity. Not long after, biology students started making gels, and, still later, sequencers, and that changed history also.
—Mark S. Tuttle ’65 Th’66
The hands-on element, being able to design real “stuff.” My BE project was designing a footbridge for the Second College Grant. It was actually built—and it made us really have to think about how our design would work in real life.
I went into information technology after graduation, so, unfortunately, I have not done much in mechanical engineering. However, in my field today as a director for a research and development department, I often find myself in discussions with engineers who design stuff, trying to figure out whether the design (which very often looks good on paper) is actually useful in “real life.” So from that perspective, I would be able to say that the experience from Thayer is useful on a daily basis for me.
—Thom Birkeland Th’97
It was definitely the emphasis on communication skills. I go to conferences to present my work and people come up to me afterwards to tell me how I am “a natural public speaker” and “so comfortable and confident.” What they don’t realize is that I am a major introvert who gets nauseated just thinking about talking to a large group. Ten years ago I couldn’t have done it, but I gained so much practice at Thayer in presenting my work that now it seems natural. I’ve won more than one “best presentation award,” not because my work was any more interesting or better, but because I was clearly the only speaker who had any practice in presentation skills.
—Steve Reinitz ’09 Th’09 ’14
I think it is the ability to problem solve with a group of people. I was an MEM student, and now I wish I spent more time at Thayer than just for the MEM program. I came from overseas, so I guess the BE was not in my reach back in the day, but even the short tenure taught me to think deeply, bounce ideas around with teammates, go back to the drawing board together, and add to each others’ work rather than subtract. The project in our entrepreneurship class required teamwork and creation of both the prototype and the business plan for it. “How can we get this done?” was the question to answer, not “Can we do this?”
My whole life, not just career (now as a VP at Synthetic Biologics), is so much richer because my teammates and professors pushed me that year to never stop looking, listening, searching, comparing, thinking, measuring, scratching, and starting all over. I just think I see to the bottom of the ocean and the details on the surface of the moon because Thayer taught me, “You can!”
—Katya Vert-Wong Th’02
The most important and enduring part of my Thayer education has been the interdisciplinary aspect of the education. While I tend to find myself most often called an engineer in my work, I mostly work as a translator between engineering and policymakers. Much of my ability to do this goes back to the broad approach of Dartmouth and Thayer’s engineering program.
—Keith Dennis ’03 Th’05
The aspect of my Thayer education that has best served me is its breadth and variety. Because the Thayer curriculum is not rigidly siloed into mechanical, electrical, or other areas of engineering, students are free—encouraged, really—to follow their curiosity and learn in a variety of disciplines. This, I feel, produces young engineers who are more conversant and useful in the workforce, where multidisciplinary teams are the norm.
Equally important is the amount of hands-on work that happens at Thayer. I have colleagues who have recently graduated, yet have never learned to solder, operate power tools, or whip up some Arduino code. Not only does this hands-on work reinforce the learning process, but it also makes graduates that much more able to bring their designs to life quickly and appreciate what is possible.
—Alex Streeter ’03 Th’05
My greatest takeaways from my time at Thayer were the interdisciplinary education and team-based project experiences, as well as development of presentation and general communication skills. I feel these skills set me up for success in my first job out of school, where I took part in a rotational program with BMW. I feel that my ENGS 190/290 [now ENGS 89/90] class, “Engineering Design Methodology,” actually helped land me the job. There was a role-playing portion of the interview in which I had to deal with a difficult team member. I think most of us had a similar experience at one point or another during our time at Thayer, so I felt well prepared and able to deal with the issues during my interview. Later on, after I was hired, I was given several opportunities to present to senior management, and I received positive feedback for communicating clearly and remaining calm and at ease. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the experience I had at Thayer.
—Matt Wallach Th’09
Breadth before depth.
—Max Fagin Th’11
The creativity and design-thinking skills I have gained through my Thayer education have served me the most in my years post-graduation, currently during my PhD Because of it, I have been able to collaborate across diverse disciplines and to work on a number of projects with a variety of exceptional people.
I am doing my PhD in applied physics at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, focusing on organic redox flow batteries and trying to understand how and where chemical reactions take place within porous electrodes. The eventual hope is to inform engineering efforts to optimize the power and therefore efficiency of this class of batteries. I recently finished my quals (phew!) and most of my time outside of research has been focused on the undergraduate community: I am a resident tutor in Winthrop (one of the Harvard undergrad houses) and am involved in academic advising for sophomores in addition to helping to coordinate a number of intramural activities.
—Drew Wong ’12
Flexibility, personal relationships, and emphasis on collaboration over competition!
—Stefan Deutsch ’14
The amount of resources available, the open-minded, open-door policy of networking and collaboration amongst the professors and a well-defined curriculum. From a Master of Engineering Management perspective, I would also vouch for the resources at Tuck and the opportunity to gain a very diverse and dynamic skill set by choosing and mix-’n-matching what you like. Every student can step out with a totally different skill set.
—Raghav Mathur Th’15
The greatest strengths of my Thayer education were the intentionality of the Thayer faculty and community, the real-time, project-based application of theory, and the network of alumni willing to help me navigate career options throughout my program. I am now working as the VP of manufacturing for FreshAir Sensor, a Dartmouth-based startup in Lebanon, N.H. We develop chemical sensors using molecularly imprinted polymer chemistry.
—Drew Matter Th’15