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

Erasing Boundaries

As the physical and digital worlds converge, engineering and computer science build an integrated future.

By Kristen Senz and Karen Endicott
Conceptual images by Wilson Architects

Thayer's new building, a conceptual image.
SHARED SPACE: Thayer's new building — shown here as a conceptual image rather than a final design — will architecturally express the spatial and programmatic intermixing of engineering, computer science, design, and entrepreneurship, with open vistas, shared facilities, and thematic rather than departmental groupings. Image by Wilson Architects.

When trying to solve the world’s toughest problems, nothing helps generate innovative ideas more than bringing together people with diverse perspectives and expertise.

That underlying notion is guiding the concept and design of a new 160,000-gross-square-foot building at Thayer School of Engineering that will also house the computer science department, Dartmouth’s new Magnuson Family Center for Entrepreneurship, the Digital Arts, Leadership and Innovation (DALI) Lab, design and maker spaces, and the electron microscope center. Along with Tuck School of Business and the forthcoming Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society, the new building is a key part of Dartmouth’s plan to transform the west end of campus into the epicenter of technological and entrepreneurial innovation at the College.

The new building will architecturally express the spatial and programmatic intermixing of engineering, computer science, design, and entrepreneurship, with open vistas, shared facilities, and thematic rather than departmental groupings. Classrooms, project studios, labs, and offices will be interspersed—as they are in Cummings Hall and MacLean Engineering Sciences Center—continuing Thayer’s successful strategy for sparking collaboration and fostering a keen sense of community even as the school grows.

“What’s exciting is bringing together innovation and entrepreneurship, computation and engineering, all in an integrated fashion and under one roof, not side-by-side in different wings of the building, but really intermixed and integrated,” says Thayer School Dean Joseph J. Helble. “This approach says to students, faculty, and staff that taking an idea from the laboratory all the way to application is not only possible but something that’s encouraged and celebrated, and we’ve got the resources here in one place for you to do it. Even more importantly, it says that the artificial divide between the computational world and the physical world of engineering devices, of hardware, is no longer relevant. To be a true technology leader, you really need to draw from the digital and physical.”

Dartmouth’s erasure of old boundaries between engineering and computer science comes at a time of increasing convergence between the physical and digital worlds—or what the National Academy of Engineering and others call the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” As Professor Hany Farid, chair of Computer Science, says, “Computer science and engineering have collided, and digital technology is being integrated into everything from toasters to self-driving cars. Our students must be trained in these two worlds.”

The new building will feature academic “neighborhoods” uniting computer science and engineering faculty and students who conduct research in areas of shared interest, including advanced materials, biotechnology, emerging technologies, energy technology, machine intelligence, mobile X, and security and privacy.

Thayer's new building, a conceptual image
Thayer's new building is a key part of Dartmouth's plan to transform the west end of campus into the epicenter of technological and entrepreneurial innovation at the college. Image by Wilson Architects.

“To have a shared space that’s just for the technology that you’re trying to develop is something that we’re really emphasizing in this building,” says Helble. “These neighborhoods are not focused around any particular curriculum. They’re focused around broad areas of technology where engineering and computing come together, where there’s opportunity for technical advance.”

Faculty members in engineering and computer science already collaborate on research in biotechnology and mobile health. Now, says Helble, “The materials faculty are thinking about the use of computation to help guide development of specific compounds and compositions, in the same way that computer scientists who are computational biologists are working with our protein engineers to design next-generation therapeutics on a computer before trying to synthesize them.”

While roughly half of all computer science departments in the United States are administratively part of engineering schools, Helble says that nowhere are these fields as fully integrated as he envisions they will be at Dartmouth. From undergraduates to post-docs and faculty, Helble foresees chance interactions leading to late-night breakthroughs and early morning mentorship in research laboratories and in the building’s next-generation project space, Couch Project Lab II.

“A lot of the richest conversations happen when students and researchers are frustrated by trying to figure out the next step in the design of whatever project they’re working on, and they’re standing next to each other at 10 or 11 at night, or 1 or 2 in the morning, and they just start talking to the students who are around them,” says Helble. “I think by providing that environment and atmosphere, the engineering and computer science students are going to learn from one another.”

Along with orchestrating this high level of integrated study and research, Dartmouth intends to grow its faculty ranks in both engineering and computer science. Thayer will expand from today’s 39 tenure-track professors to 70, while computer science grows from 18 to 27 over the next decade. Combined, engineering and computer science tenure-track faculty will total nearly 100, a scholarly cohort of unprecedented size in Dartmouth’s history.

According to Farid, this larger scale will put Dartmouth on a different level for recruitment and research collaboration. “We will be punching at a different weight class, and I think that means we can really seriously compete at a level that is difficult for us now,” he says. “When we lose faculty, it is almost always because they want to be in a bigger department, with more collaborators, more colleagues, and a bigger population of students. To compete in this modern age, size actually matters.”

Already the computer science department is bringing on new faculty whose expertise bridges engineering and computing in fields such as robotics and sensor design, adds Farid.

Helble and Farid anticipate that faculty will find ways to collaborate in the classroom as well, with the addition of new space to facilitate connections. The Technology-Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) Classroom, a centerpiece of the new building, will feature the latest in smart technology, seating for 80, and maximum flexibility in room configuration. The space will be ideal for active learning approaches such as the flipped classroom, which maximizes in-class interactions between students and professors and lets faculty see student progress in real time and adjust lessons accordingly. Helble expects this and other new instructional spaces will help spur development of new co-taught courses in areas where engineering and computation intersect. “I am fully confident that will happen once we’re all running into one another many times on a daily basis,” he says. “That’s how collaborations emerge.”

Collaborations also emerge when more students and researchers have access to powerful, state-of-the-art tools. Sherman Fairchild Professor of Engineering Ian Baker, a materials scientist who is the most comprehensive user of Dartmouth’s scanning electron microscope, says he will welcome the relocation of the electron microscope center from Geisel School of Medicine space to the new building—in a purpose-built area that will be free from vibration and electromagnetic interference. The equipment that he and his fellow researchers use daily will be much closer to his lab. Convenience aside, Baker says he looks forward to what the change will bring. “It’s just more exciting to have new people around working on new and interesting technologies,” he says. “I think we’ve got a great future.”

The execution of Thayer School’s multifaceted growth strategy is already well under way and is expected to continue on an aggressive schedule. Before the public launch of Dartmouth’s “Call to Lead” capital campaign in April, Thayer School had already raised more than 50 percent of the $155-million total project cost for the new building.

“We’ve entered the design-development phase and then construction documents come after that. One phase will flow seamlessly into the other, and we hope to make the transition to the beginning of construction drawing work probably in September, with the goal of finishing all the design work by the end of 2018,” Helble says, adding that shovels could break ground as soon as next year.

Meanwhile, student demand for engineering and computer science courses continues to soar among Dartmouth students. In addition to majors, 70 percent of Dartmouth students take at least one engineering or computer science course during their undergraduate years. The expansion of faculty and facilities will build Dartmouth’s capacity to give all students access to engineering and computer science courses as technical knowledge becomes an essential part of a contemporary liberal arts education.

“The world of connected devices is upon us,” says Helble, “and for us to play a leading role in giving students the opportunity to draw from both engineering and computing in a seamless way is something that I hope will be exciting to our alumni. I think that by bringing engineering and computer science together around this notion of the world’s problems that we are trying to solve—not focused on the disciplinary content, but on the outcome—we will see even more success in attracting a diverse student body.”

—Kristen Senz is a writer at Dartmouth Engineer and Karen Endicott is editor of Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Features

Tags: curriculum, facilities, leadership, research

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