Perspective: Commitment and Creativity
By Joseph J. Helble, Dean
Late one afternoon, early in my first year at Dartmouth, I was walking outside Cummings Hall while the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center was under construction. Parts of the Cummings lawn were surrounded by fencing, and construction materials and debris were scattered about. A student I had met once or twice before fell in alongside me, and as I said hello, I gestured to it all—the fence, the covered lawn, the construction materials, and the noise—and asked her what she thought. I was asking about this disruption to her daily routine, to the daily routine of all of our students—something I think about a lot these days as we approach a major expansion of Thayer’s faculty, programs, and facilities. Her answer, which I have never forgotten, made it clear that she saw things differently: “I find them inspiring.”
By “them,” of course, she meant the words of Sylvanus Thayer, literally carved in stone on the side of Cummings (and now MacLean) and visible through the clutter of that day: “To prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.”
Responsibility. Service to society. An embracing of the most difficult challenges. These are usually not the first words that come to mind when one describes an engineering school, but these are the words that have guided the Thayer School for nearly 150 years—words that this Thayer community continues to hold as central to our purpose.
Today another word also comes immediately to mind when I think about the Thayer community: creativity. Our faculty, students, and alumni exercise extraordinary creativity in devising novel solutions to address fundamental human needs. My firm belief is that this creativity stems naturally from the commitment General Thayer’s words instill in us: the commitment to see beyond the immediate, to embrace the world’s needs as our own, and to use our skills, our knowledge, and our insights to improve the human condition.
When I look around the Thayer School of Engineering today, I see this outward-focused creativity embodied in all that we do. It is abundantly evident in our students, in their capstone design projects, which address immediate real-world challenges, or in our ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering projects, which focus on a different open-ended societal challenge each term. It is evident in the work of our faculty, from our youngest colleagues, such as Margie Ackerman, developing vaccines to address devastating disease, or Jifeng Liu, developing novel solar materials to capture light more efficiently, to more senior colleagues such as Eric Fossum, developing new ways to sense and image where there is almost no light. And it is so clearly evident in the accomplishments of our alumni, with countless innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs among those who have called Thayer School “home.”
Creativity abounds today in every corner of this School. I have no doubt that General Thayer would be proud.
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