State of the School
After five years at Thayer’s helm, Dean Joseph J. Helble talks about the changes he has overseen and why he’s more passionate than ever about engineering education.
Interview by Karen Endicott
How have your impressions of Thayer School evolved?
I knew this was an institution that had a broad liberal arts-based engineering education, but you can’t really appreciate what a wonderful job it does in preparing our students for the careers they’ve undertaken until you’re here.
I knew that alumni were devoted to Dartmouth, but you don’t appreciate how strong that bond is until you start spending time with alumni and see that it’s genuine. Having a faculty who truly believe in interdisciplinary undergraduate engineering education with the same depth and passion that they believe in their research — you can see that from the outside, but you have be here and live it to really understand how unusual it is.
Why is it so unusual?
I think there are competing pressures and mixed messages in many institutions. It’s common to say that teaching is important, but what matters most at tenure and promotion time is how much research grant funding you’ve raised, how many papers you’ve published, what your peers have to say. The commitment to first-rate scholarship is as strong here as at any peer research institution. But we also raise our expectation for teaching to the same level. We’re going to continue doing everything we can to make sure our students get the best possible education.
Why did you want Thayer to choose research focus areas?
The faculty is small, and though individual members of the faculty were making significant research contributions in their own specialized fields, our size was limiting our reputation and ability to attract graduate students. If you’re a prospective student interested in a particular research problem and you’re choosing between an institution with six professors working collaboratively on the problem and another institution with just one professor, you’d probably assume that there are more opportunities at the more focused institution.
We knew we had to grow the faculty. It was clear that Thayer was too small to be doing everything equally well. In hiring it made sense to develop a cohesive strategy and build a couple of key areas that we would emphasize, nurture, and grow, areas that would be focal points — both for students who come here and for building institutional reputation.
How hard was it to select the research focus areas?
As a faculty we took about 18 months to work through the entire process. The interface between engineering and medicine emerged naturally as a focus area, since so many faculty were already working on medical-related research. Our criteria for a second area of focus were that it had to be: interdisciplinary, significant in the careers of our graduates, an area that reinforced our undergraduate education, a problem area important to the world, an area where graduate-level research was fundable, and an area where Thayer School’s interdisciplinary structure was an asset. The faculty decided on engineering in medicine and energy as the areas we would build through investment, including through strategic faculty hires. Complex systems became our third focus area (see Complex Systems article), with the understanding that we would not target it for near-term growth. We’ve been going down this path for three years now, and I think we’ve developed some exciting new courses and brought in some very exciting new members of the faculty who are contributing in these areas already.
Was funding a factor in choosing focus areas?
We all believe in the words carved in granite on the outside of the building: the most responsible positions and the most difficult service. To many of us that means working to solve the most challenging technology-related problems facing society. That was the principle motivation in our selection of research focus areas. There was a curricular aspect: In hiring faculty who can contribute to these interdisciplinary research problems, we also sought individuals who could contribute to our systems-based engineering curricular approach. The funding aspect was pragmatic in the sense that funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, are not funding the single investigator, hypothesis-driven, narrowly focused research proposals to the extent that they were 30 years ago. They’re trying to fund solutions to interdisciplinary problems.
What has guided student growth?
We were dedicating a new facility shortly after I arrived in 2006, giving us the capacity to educate larger numbers of students. We, the Thayer faculty and staff, believe that an engineering education is one of the best ways to prepare for a productive career in a broad variety of fields in the 21st century. The way we approach engineering education at Dartmouth gives our students a particular competitive advantage and opportunities to assume positions of leadership. It gives them the right mix of quantitative and qualitative skills that are essential for tackling the big problems. We would like to have more students study engineering because we think that’s what our nation, what global society needs. And there’s a certain energy and enthusiasm that comes with a large cohort who are developing the skills and knowledge to go off and make a difference in the world. Larger in that context is better.
What are the numbers?
We set, and have largely met, goals of growing the A.B. program from 60 to 75-100 majors each year, correspondingly growing the B.E. program, increasing each M.E.M. class to 50-60 students, and doubling the Ph.D. program to 100 students.
Will Thayer School grow so much that it becomes a different kind of place?
No. We are committed to small team-based, systems-based, hands-on learning. We are committed to maintaining a very low student-faculty ratio, so we are growing our faculty at the same time that our student numbers are growing. We won’t grow without bounds. We intend to deliver the kind of engineering education that we have been delivering for decades because we think it works exceptionally well for our students.
How are opportunities for students changing?
We’ve expanded opportunities in all our degree programs. At the undergraduate level, we’ve added a new biomedical engineering sciences major and modified major options with earth sciences and public policy. And because having an international experience is an important part of an engineering education in the 21st century, we’re developing international opportunities in engineering for our undergraduates. Our Thailand exchange program is already in place, we’re moving forward with another in Asia, and we’re exploring options for a third site.
Our Master of Engineering Management (M.E.M.) program now offers four focus options: healthcare systems, energy and environment, manufacturing and operations, and entrepreneurship. Our new M.D./M.S. program, a joint venture with Dartmouth Medical School, gives future clinicians an understanding of technologies they’ll be using as they treat patients. At the doctoral level, we’ve created an entrepreneurial track, the Ph.D. Innovation Program, to give students skills and experience in turning their research discoveries into applied technologies. The Ph.D. Innovation Program — the first of its kind in the United States — is the most recent addition to Dartmouth’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program. Our students now have entrepreneurial opportunities at all our degree levels: ENGS 21 introductory class at the A.B. level, our design sequence at the B.E. level, the M.E.M. program, and the Ph.D. Innovation Program.
How is the Ph.D. Innovation Program progressing?
We had a wonderful applicant pool this year. Roughly 20 percent of Ph.D. applicants discussed the program in their application, and 15 percent applied to it. I’m particularly excited that 30 percent of the applicants this year were women, given that relatively few women pursue careers in technology-related entrepreneurship. For example, only 5 percent of the founders of energy companies that received venture capital funding in the past two years were women. We have a program that is 33 percent female at the Ph.D. level as well as the undergraduate level; we’d love to see Thayer School and this program contribute to an increase in the number of aspiring female high-tech entrepreneurs.
Is gender still a big issue in engineering?
Yes, but not here. Nationally less than 20 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees are being earned by women, and the same is true at the Ph.D. level. If you go back 50 years and look at medicine, business, law, and engineering, over 90 percent of the degrees were conferred to men. Fast-forward 50 years, and law and medicine are at or close to parity. Medicine is well beyond parity in some specialties. Business is at about 40 percent nationally. Engineering is still at 20 percent.
Why is that?
There is lots of speculation: lack of understanding of engineering and lack of exposure to it at the K-12 level, lack of good role models for young girls, lack of connection between engineering and solving problems that matter to society. A study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences talked about first- and second-grade teachers unconsciously transmitting their own math phobia to girls. Here at Thayer, we don’t have departments, and we’re focused on developing team skills so our graduates can go out and solve big problems. Studies have shown that this kind of approach appeals to young people today and particularly to young girls.
Can the Thayer kind of education be reproduced at a larger institution? Should this kind of education be available more broadly?
Yes, emphatically. But I wouldn’t say reproduced. I’m disappointed that there’s not more project-based education at other engineering institutions. I don’t expect every institution to tear apart their departments to implement an interdisciplinary systems-based engineering curriculum, but I am surprised that so few places have integrated senior design projects where electrical, mechanical, chemical, and biomedical engineering students work together. To have a class like ENGS 21 as your first class in engineering and to have an interdisciplinary capstone class like ours where at least a couple of departments come together — I don’t think there’s any reason why any engineering school in the country couldn’t do that.
Why are you so passionate about engineering education?
I grew up in the ’70s. I remember the first OPEC oil embargo and the upheaval it caused: gas lines, people wondering how they were going to get to work, prices sky-rocketing. I was 12 or 13, and I remember wondering, with this big challenge facing society, how I could make a difference. I wanted to be an engineer to work on energy, to work on protecting the environment and developing technologies to prevent future problems.
I think we’ve done a really poor job over the past three decades of articulating the connection between engineering and “grand challenges” like energy that are facing society. In the United States the number of engineers we graduate per capita isn’t anywhere near what it needs to be to solve some of these challenges. We are far behind every other developed and many developing countries in numbers of engineers. I believe in the skills and knowledge that an engineering education provides. I believe it’s the right way to tackle these broad problems we and our children are going to be facing for the next century, and I believe that innovation, entrepreneurship, and job creation in areas of technology are essential parts of the solution.
Do you ever think about what founder Sylvanus Thayer or Robert Fletcher, Thayer’s first dean, would think if they walked into Thayer School? You live with them in your office — their portraits hang right above you.
I do look up at those pictures and think about how the school has changed over nearly 150 years. In the early days with Bobby Fletcher there was a focus on contributing to the local area through consulting. Some of that continues, but now there’s a much greater emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. We’ve got an entrepreneurial faculty — a quarter of our faculty have started companies in the past decade — and we’re teaching students in all our programs some of the skills needed to go down this path. That’s absolutely consistent with what Bobby Fletcher practiced under Sylvanus Thayer’s vision. I think the students see that we as a faculty and staff believe it’s not enough to just do good design work or engineering science, but as engineers we have the obligation to take the next step and put it to good use, to be entrepreneurial. And though we’re considerably larger than we were in the early days when Bobby Fletcher was the dean and the Overseers still examined every student to determine whether they were qualified to graduate, our focus on the students and close student-faculty interaction has never changed. I think they’d be pleased, even proud, that the words of Sylvanus Thayer are carved in stone on the walls of both of our buildings. I know that the faculty, the staff, and the students read them and believe in them. That is our mission. That hasn’t changed.
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