Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

A Few of Our Favorite Things

A professorial pick of outstanding ENGS 21 projects

By Karen Endicott

For decades Thayer School’s “Introduction to Engineering” course has been a favorite with students — engineering majors and non-majors alike. That’s because ENGS 21 (a.k.a. ES 21) isn’t just any intro course. In 1961 Professor Robert Dean, now a veteran entrepreneur and an adjunct professor, turned a three-year-old course about the theoretical foundations of engineering into a hands-on experience of doing engineering. Continuing to evolve over the years, ENGS 21 gives students the means to design solutions to real-world challenges, build working prototypes, develop business plans, and present results to a professional review board.

Left to right, Chloe Ruiz-Funes ’13, Alan Salas ’13, Yuan Shangguan ’13, and Philip Royer ’13 assemble robot parts they made during orientation to ENGS 21.
HANDS ON: Left to right, Chloe Ruiz-Funes ’13, Alan Salas ’13, Yuan Shangguan ’13, and Philip Royer ’13 assemble robot parts they made during orientation to ENGS 21. Photograph by Douglas Fraser.

“The goal is to give students a set of skills that allows them to tackle a problem and an opportunity to work in a group,” says Professor John Collier ’72 Th’77, who first taught the course in 1984.

Before taking ENGS 21, many students have never even drilled a hole. “At the end of term every student knows how to use a lathe, milling machine, band saw, drill press, use hand tools, solder wires, build circuits, and do CAD, and a lot of them have done rapid prototyping as well,” says Collier. “You’ve taken students who have an interest in building things and set it up so they have the skills to do it.”

The group experience magnifies the effect. “The sum of what a team is able to learn and do is greater than what any one individual is able to do,” says Collier.

The results have led to patentable and marketable products. Dean Spatz ’66 Th’67 co-founded the company Osmonics based on his ENGS 21 work (see “Inventions”). An innovative 2004 ENGS 21 project called the Gyrobike won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award in 2006 and is now for sale at gyrobike.co. Other great ENGS 21 ideas with commercial potential have fallen by the proverbial wayside as students move on to other interests.

Choosing favorites from the many projects students have done over the year doesn’t come easily for Collier or the other faculty members who rotate teaching ENGS 21, Professors William Lotko and Ian Baker.

“It’s hard to select one or a few because I love all of my children the same,” says Lotko. “My faves are as much — maybe more — about the teams’ process as the widget.”

“They’re all really good projects, and the students learn a ton,” Collier says. “When I pick projects that are impressive to me, it’s where the group came together and worked effectively and where they were able to demonstrate a whole bunch of skills. Part of what appeals to me is the students who get so caught up in what they’re doing, they’re determined to make it succeed even though it takes an enormous amount of time and energy for that to happen.”

But what impresses Collier the most is the lasting effect of the course. “The thing that is so stunning is if you go back 30 years and you ask students what their ES 21 project was, they can tell you what it was and most can tell you who was on their team. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t remember what their ES 21 project was.”

For the record, Collier recalls his own: “Carl Long was our faculty advisor, and Russell Stearns was running the course. The topic was something like improving living conditions for migrant workers. Our project was being able to reconfigure the inside of a room. We wanted to make wall panels that would snap together and press against the ceiling and floor and have power in them so that you could reconfigure a room. It was pretty simple back then, but I still remember doing it.”

Read on to see a few of the projects Collier, Lotko, and Professor Peter Robbie, a frequent faculty collaborator in ENGS 21, can’t help but admire.


STUDENTS: Left to right, below, Hannah Murnen ’06 Th’07, Deborah Sperling ’06 Th’07, Nathan Sigworth ’07, Augusta Niles ’07 Th’08

WHAT IT IS: a bike stabilizer so beginners can learn to ride without having to use training wheels

Gyrobike team
Photograph by Chad Hunt.


Collier: Here were four students who knew nothing about how to build anything at the start, yet they enjoyed each other’s company tremendously and they supported each other and developed considerable fabrication skills. They tackled something they knew very little about, worked well as a team, were determined to succeed, and actually demonstrated the effectiveness of their device by teaching several children of Thayer staff how to ride a bike in an afternoon.

Robbie: The group’s key insight came from empathy with childhood fears about learning to ride a bike. Training wheels don’t teach kids how to lean and steer into turns. The Gyrobike lets them do just that. The students patented the Gyrobike and started a company [now run by CEO Daniella Reichstetter Tu’07].

Boat Trailer

STUDENTS: Left to right, below, Eric Fitz Th’05, Monica Thomas Th’05, Peter Rice Th’06, David Fouche Th’05, Spencer Boice Th’05

WHAT IT IS: retractable “landing gear” for boats

Retractable 'landing gear' for boats


Collier: This group of dual-degree students from Colby was determined to make a full-sized, functional prototype of a boat that had wheels that were like the landing gear of a plane. When approaching shore, the push of a button would electrically lower the wheels. A tongue would be connected to the front of the boat and to a vehicle and one could then tow the boat right out of the water with no trailer, so there’s nothing to store on shore. The boat is its own trailer. This was a very challenging project in that the system was complex and the boat needed to remain watertight. The group worked relentlessly and made a fully functional system out of aluminum and then demonstrated it by videotaping it entering and being towed back out of the Connecticut River.

Robbie: This project was an insane amount of work and a great example of attempting a really creative, counterintuitive solution.


STUDENTS: Abraham Clayman ’07, Daniel Harburg Th’09, Sanderson Hull ’09, Michal Jablonski ’09 Th’10, Alex Lippai ’09

WHAT IT IS: a lighting system attached to a belt

Photograph by Douglas Fraser.


Collier: The group was determined to make a light that would permit running at night through the woods. Their functional prototype was so well finished that when they demonstrated it, the reaction was: Okay, where did you buy this. It looked like the real deal.

Robbie: This was an excellent project that showed sensitivity to the discomforts of runners using headlamps caused by poor visibility, disorientation from bobbing light, and lack of a consistent visual reference. The group performed original human factors research to determine that the waist moved much less than the head and was therefore a superior location for mounting a light. Their prototype was a comfortable multiple-LED belt with a rechargeable battery and a safety light on back.

Sanitizing Keyboard Cover

STUDENTS: Sean Currey ’11, Elizabeth Kemp ’11, Heather Kluk ’11, Yolanda Lin ’11

WHAT IT IS: a keyboard cover cleansed by UV light after each use

Sanitizing keyboard cover


Collier: This group had no idea about how UV lights kill off bacteria, and they had never put together a mechanical or electronic system. Further, they began, like many groups, with little fabrication expertise. They used a pair of silicone covers for a keyboard that had room for every key. They hooked these together and moved them with a tractor-feed system. When one cover was over the keys, the other was in a closed box under the keyboard, where it was sterilized with UV light. One big challenge was that they had to index the covers exactly. The problem turned out to be really daunting. They beat on it and beat on it and beat on it until they finally came up with a way of making it work. And they actually did the cell-culture work to show that short-duration exposure to UV light killed off all the bacteria.

Take-a-Breather Nebulizer Inhaler for Asthmatics

STUDENTS: Zakieh Bigio ’10, Elizabeth Dain-Owens ’10, Catherine Emil ’10, Sarah Feldmann ’11, Sarah Rocio ’10

WHAT IT IS: a collapsible, portable nebulizer



Robbie: They designed and tested an improved mouthpiece and spacer for the metered-dose inhaler used by millions of asthmatics. This was a difficult project that required collaboration with several physicians and solving multiple problems in a single integrated solution. The design includes a nebulizer that collapses to a small, easily carried form and a novel two-way valve that allows the patient to hold the device in his or her mouth while breathing normally. The students set a high bar for themselves with a project that required sophisticated medical knowledge and complex CAD and prototyping.

Lotko: They even ran SolidWorks flow simulations to study and optimize flow patterns in the device. They also developed some sophisticated bench-top test procedures to evaluate the effectiveness of the device.

Spotter-Free Weight-Lifting Bench

STUDENTS: Eric Chaves ’05, Dan Jackson ’05, Lance Martin ’05 Th’06, Colin Murray ’04 Th’05 ’06

WHAT IT IS: a device for using free weights without a spotter

Device for using free weights without a spotter
Photograph by Douglas Fraser.


Robbie: The students created a weight bench with an adjustable piston allowing weightlifters to safely lower themselves below a catch bar when they need an assist. This is a wonderful example of the creativity of thinking in opposites.

ENGS 21 presentation video courtesy of student team.


STUDENTS: Lauren Harad ’12, Sarah Jewett ’12, Sam Streeter ’13, Max Van Pelt ’11

WHAT IT IS: a keel weight that makes capsized kayaks easier to right



Robbie: The students understood the terror most people have about being upside-down in a kayak. This solution really works: It lowers anxiety levels so that users can learn more quickly and easily how to perform an Eskimo Roll.

Lotko: I really liked the simple model and scale prototype they developed to test and optimize their initial concept. The full-scale version works extraordinarily well, and it is such an exquisitely simple solution.

Custom Keyboard

STUDENTS: Left to right, below, Renee Foisy ’88, David Lindahl ’86, Christoph Mack ’88, Corey Brinkema ’86, Susan Smith ’86, Patrick Walsh ’88

WHAT IT IS: a piano customized for a musician with a specific physical disability

Custom Keyboard
Photograph by Nancy Wasserman.


Collier: Back when the course was small I would pick a topic and immerse the students by taking them to meet folks who had problems. One year I took them to Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center for young people who have disabilities. We toured around and everyone met with the kids. This group of potential engineers and a musician met Maureen Gaynor, a girl with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair who had a head stick — a band around her head with a pointer coming out of it — and a board with letters on it, and “yes” and “no’’ and a couple of words. You would ask her questions and she would move her head to point. Her use of her hands was very limited. With the help of an assistant they asked her: If we could help you do any one thing, what would you like to do? Her answer was: play chords. She had a toy-like piano, but she didn’t have enough control to play chords. They decided they would make her a piano. They talked to Casio and got them to donate an electronic organ. They tested her ability to move and realized one hand had much more control than the other and that she could only put her hands out to the sides. They did lots of testing with Maureen and got the angle of the keyboard just right and the size of the keys right. The students went to the wood shop at the Hopkins Center and made this whole electric piano case out of cherry so it looked like furniture. Here at Thayer they tested the tactile feel of all the different plastics, picked the most appealing, and then machined each key individually and hooked each up electronically to the organ. Toward the end of the term one member of the group took the piano down to Crotched Mountain, set it up, and set up a video camera. Maureen rolled over to the keyboard and began to play “Silent Night.” It was phenomenal! When the students gave their presentation to the review board and showed the video, everyone sat there staring. The students were expecting applause, and we were dumbfounded, thinking: How did that happen? The applause came loud and long after we realized how sensationally the group had succeeded. None of the students and none of the review board members had any idea that the girl understood music and could play with the right equipment. Recalling that one really brings tears to my eyes.

Maureen Gaynor tries out her custom keyboard with a little guidance from David Lindahl ’86. The video, made in 1986, formed part of the ENGS 21 group’s final presentation.

Editor’s Note: Maureen Gaynor is now a musician and writer.

Dripless Gasoline Nozzle

STUDENTS: Mark Christman ’06, Jeff Grossmann ’06 Th’07, Max Guimond ’06 Th’06, Juliana Lisi ’05 Th’06, Meredith Lunn ’06 Th’07

WHAT IT IS: a slit membrane cap for a gasoline nozzle to prevent dribbling gasoline when removing the nozzle from your gas tank

Dripless Gasoline Nozzle


Lotko: Although it seemed like a simple, but maybe not terribly important, project at first, the team’s research revealed the cumulative environmental impact of dripped gas at the nation’s filling stations — and EPA plans to require spill-proof gas nozzles to be installed at all gas stations. A few calls to nozzle manufacturers found that they had no solution yet. The manufacturers even asked the Dartmouth students to call back if they found a good one. With this knowledge, the problem and the team’s efforts took on a whole new dimension. How hard could it be to design and develop a simple end cap or flap for a gas nozzle? Much more challenging than anyone on the team imagined. They first had to become venturi nozzle experts — the solution couldn’t undermine its ability to shut off automatically. It had to be robust and durable, and its viability had to be demonstrated by tests in a powerful solvent — gasoline. The students climbed the learning curve fast. The importance, feasibility, and novelty of their final design earned a pending patent, which Meredith developed over the summer on the team’s behalf.

Coded Light Switch

STUDENTS: Michael Bush ’11, Eric Durell ’11, Michael Lewis ’11, Thomas Mandel ’11, Paul Seebacher ’11

WHAT IT IS: a switch that enables power when a valid ID card is inserted

Card reader


Lotko: Dartmouth dormitory life presents a rich and sometimes abundantly obvious need for engineering solutions that can improve how things are done. A cursory walk down the hall of any dorm shows that too many lights are left on with no one in the room. Can an engineering fix modify behavior? No other ES 21 presentation ever attracted the interest of so many Dartmouth administrators and facilities staff. This simple but ingenious device makes use of the Dartmouth ID card. (But which one of the three different kinds of ID tags — magnetic stripe, bar code, or radio frequency ID — should one use?) With a card reader in each dorm room linked to central computers, the reader validates that you have authority to enable power in the room. Heading out to dinner? You won’t get far without your ID, so you need to pull it out of the reader and disable power. Try to jimmy the reader with a generic card, electronic validation won’t let you.

Oarlock Tool

STUDENTS: Stephanie Crocker ’12, Erin Dauson ’11, Wiley Dunlap-Shohl ’12, Ruth McGovern ’12, Eric Packer ’12

WHAT IT IS: a hand tool for adjusting the height of oarlocks

Oarlock tool


Lotko: It won’t reach the mass market, but ask any rower on the Connecticut River on a cold April morning how much fun it is with bare hands to change the spacers for the oar lock position on a shell. They will verify a compelling need for a better way. Rumors of the device development spread rapidly across campus well before its design had even crystallized. When I met a professor and recreational rower at a frat row BBQ that spring, her main interest in our conversation was about the ES 21 team she heard was developing a new spacer removal tool. Specialized pliers adapted to a new spacer design developed by the team, the device takes the pain out of spacer removal. Its final presentation would have gone exceedingly well if the team had not dropped the tool in the Connecticut River during testing days before the presentation and before floatation material (anticipating exactly this circumstance) had been finalized.

Vaccine Delivery System

STUDENTS: Satoshi Harris-Koizumi ’12, Merritt Jenkins ’10, Aidan Nelson ’12, Grayson Zulauf ’12

WHAT IT IS: an ice pack designed to prevent vaccines from freezing

Vaccine delivery system


Robbie: The group identified the weak link in the temperature control mechanism used in vaccine transport systems currently used in developing countries and then created a simple, effective, and affordable solution for use in areas without access to electricity.


ToneTube STUDENTS: Andreas Baum ’07, Bruce Corliss ’08 Th’09, Alexandria Fecych ’07 Th’08, Frederick ‘Parke’ MacDowell ’07, Scott Newbry ’08

WHAT IT IS: a blow tube with feedback indicator to train brass musicians to maintain constant airflow


Lotko: The students connected with users immediately, identified a compelling problem common to them, and conceived and developed a simple solution. Their analysis of the performance of the device was superb, and their follow-up with users demonstrated viability and significant interest in their device. Buoyed by their engineering success, Parke and Scott pitched a plan to the Club of Dartmouth Entrepreneurs for production and sale of the device. They won the club’s 2005 E-ship competition among a field of 18 entrants, including Tuck and Dartmouth Medical School students.


STUDENTS: Derek Brand ’09 Th’10, Eric Mann Th’10, Ignacio Rueda ’09 Th’10, Kyle Sherry ’09 Th’10

WHAT IT IS: an aerodynamic cover for a pickup truck bed to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency



Lotko: Some ES 21 groups connect with potential users so effectively, develop and test a solution to a problem so thoroughly, and present the concept and results so professionally that professors sometimes wonder who’s teaching whom. This group’s expertise and polish (and camaraderie) stood out at every stage of the process. The final product, a sloped Tonneau cover extending from the top rear of the cab to the top rear of the pickup bed, was even endurance-tested by Eric on the way home to Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Efficient Drinking Fountain

Drinking fountain prototypeSTUDENTS: Elizabeth Asher ’09, Josh Bronston ’06, Patrick Hamon ’08, Sarah Parkinson ’09

WHAT IT IS: a drinking fountain faucet that wastes less water


Lotko: Did you ever wonder or even notice what fraction of the water goes down the drain when someone drinks from a water fountain? That point did not miss the collective eye of this engineering team. Part anthropologist, part scientist, and part engineer, they quantified the waste (the efficiency of state-of-the-art fountains is typically less than 40 percent), determined why so much water goes down the drain, and designed a faucet extension that would meet the needs of students who carry water bottles but can’t seem to fill them very efficiently at standard-issue fountains.

—Karen Endicott is the editor of Dartmouth Engineer.

For more photos, visit our Student Projects set of images on Flickr.

Categories: Features

Tags: alumni, award, curriculum, design, entrepreneurship, faculty, history, patent, projects, research, students

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