Perspective: Inventiveness on Display
By Dean Joseph J. Helble
Innovation and entrepreneurship have been core components of a Dartmouth engineering education for half a century. From the pioneering efforts in the late 1950s and early 1960s of Thayer professors James Browning, Merle Thorpe, and serial entrepreneur Bob Dean—who’s pushing ahead with his latest entrepreneurial venture at age 83—we have reached the stage where 25 percent of our faculty members have started a company in the past decade alone. While our absolute numbers may be small, on a per capita basis this is one of the highest levels of engineering faculty entrepreneurship in the country.
This spirit of entrepreneurship, of identifying pressing, real-world problems and then building solutions, is pervasive within our student body and alumni community. It is a natural outgrowth of a liberal arts-based engineering education that encourages students to think broadly about all aspects of a problem, yet use their technical skill to explore solutions deeply. It is a spirit and philosophy that we routinely associate with the Introduction to Engineering course, ENGS 21, that all majors (and another 10 percent of Dartmouth students who are non-majors) take every year. It is the core focus of our interdisciplinary Bachelor of Engineering capstone sequence. It is the reason the Ph.D. Innovation Program was created nearly four years ago to develop greater numbers of doctoral-level technology entrepreneurs.
It is this spirit that also underlies the Wall of Patents newly on display on the second floor of Cummings Hall at the Thayer School of Engineering. Spanning four decades of innovation, the patents have color-coded frames to indicate whether they were the product of work by faculty, staff, students, or collaborative teams.
Over the past few years, we have seen tremendous growth in the levels of invention, with the number of patents awarded in the 2000s more than twice that of the 1990s. And if the first 18 months of the 2010s are any indication, another doubling is well within reach. As we have told our entering engineering graduate students and freshmen alike, we are on track to completely fill the current patent display corridor by 2015. It is their challenge to make this happen.
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