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Tribute: Myron Tribus

Dean Myron Tribus
Photograph courtesy Thayer School Archives.

Myron Tribus, dean of Thayer School from 1961 to 1969, died August 31, 2016 in Pensacola, Fla., at age 94.

An expert in thermodynamics and organizational theory, Tribus graduated from UC Berkley in 1942 and received his PhD in engineering from UCLA in 1949. He was a captain in the United States Air Force during World War II, and worked as a design-development officer at Wright Field. He joined General Electric and became a gas turbine design engineer. He returned to academia, teaching thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and heat transfer at UCLA, and serving as a visiting professor and director of research at the University of Michigan between 1951 and 1953.

As dean of Thayer School for eight years, Tribus oversaw a period of growth and innovation. Stating that “knowledge without know-how is sterile,” he led the faculty in developing a new curriculum based on engineering design and entrepreneurship. He initiated systems courses and the hands-on design projects—including in Engineering Sciences 21: Introduction to Engineering—that remain strengths of the Thayer curriculum. He launched BE, ME, MSc, DE, and PhD programs, increased course offerings from 48 to 119, increased the number of faculty from 18 to 34, boosted research, and created partnerships between Thayer and industry to give students real-life engineering experiences.

Tribus left Thayer in 1969 to become Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Science and Technology in the Nixon administration. After 18 months, he became senior VP for research and engineering at Xerox Corp. From 1974 to 1986 he directed MIT’s Center for Advanced Engineering Study. He co-founded Exergy Inc. to design high-efficiency power production systems. He was widely known for his work as an inventor of de-icing systems for airplanes; studies in thermodynamics, probability statistics, and decision making theory; popularizing Bayesian methods; and and interpreting quality management and business theory. He coined the term “thermoeconomics” to refer to applying thermodynamic principles to economics. His book Thermostatics and Thermodynamics connected thermodynamics to information theory, and his book Rational Descriptions, Decisions, and Designs introduced Bayesian decision methods into the engineering design process.

An elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, Tribus received the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Wright Brothers Medal and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Alfred Noble Prize for his work developing a thermal ice-protection system for aircraft. He served on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the National Academy of Sciences’ Materials Advisory Board Advisory group on aeronautical research and development, the U.S. Department of Commerce’ Technical Advisory Board, the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmospheres, and the board of governors for the Israel Institute of Technology.

Tribus is survived by two daughters and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 66 years, Sue Tribus, and one grandson.

Tribus the Visionary

By John Collier ’72 Th’73 ’75 ’77, Myron Tribus Professor of Engineering Innovation

Myron Tribus became the dean of the Thayer School in the 1960s, and under his guidance Thayer’s novel educational program was developed with such innovation and insight that it has survived reasonably intact to this day, more than half a century later. The core of the curriculum included two “systems” courses to give the students the tools they needed for engineering analysis along with an open-ended project course, ENGS 21, which taught the techniques for tackling real world problems. These courses, now identified as ENGS 21, 22, and 23 have much in common with their predecessors. Myron had left Thayer several years before I attended it, but his legacy was firmly rooted and I, in common with all engineering majors, took the three courses; surviving 22 and 23 but thriving in 21. So, while I had heard much about Myron and his impact on education from my mentors, Fred Hooven and Ralph Crump, over the years I had not interacted directly with him until I became the first holder of the Myron Tribus Chair of Innovation. At the dinner for this event I was introduced to Myron by both the dean of Thayer, Charles ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and Ralph Crump who provided the endowment for the chair and who had been a student of Myron’s years earlier at UCLA.

My first meeting with Myron was fast-paced and broad-reaching as it became very clear that he had spent many hours over the years studying and writing about how important education is and how the best techniques developed in a wide variety of fields and countries might be modified for use at Thayer. He had recently returned from a trip to Isreal where he had met with Reuven Feuerstein, an innovative teacher who had developed techniques, labeled ‘Instrumental Enrichment’, to teach fourth graders to think more clearly using a set of cleverly designed worksheets that each focused on a different cognitive skill. Skills such as spacial orientation, contrasts, directions, etc., were each separately developed with about 30 worksheets that over roughly 20 hours per skill would bring the student to a highly developed skill level. Interestingly, these techniques were also being taught to the recruits in the Israeli army who hadn’t experience them in school. 

Myron recommended that I go to Israel to learn these techniques and meet with the experts who were teaching them. While this was appealing, I thought that I could multiply the learning if we could have the Instrumental Enrichment teacher come to Thayer where I would put together a group of faculty and students interested in learning these skills. Myron agreed, and that summer Meir came to Thayer and several Thayer faculty, my research group, and several other students spent an intensive week of learning the theory of this teaching and developing several of the skills. Myron supported this program that changed the way I teach by helping me to understand how differently we think from one another. I was profoundly influenced by the teachings and was given permission from the IE group to run introductory sessions for local elementary, middle, and high school teachers. The response was positive and enthusiastic, and I entertained the hope that the IE curriculum could be brought into the local school system. Alas, because the curriculum was already full, the teachers and administrators couldn’t decide what they would drop out of their program to make room for the new material.

Myron was tremendously interested and supportive of my efforts to bring new approaches to learning to the schools and to Thayer. One year I offered a voluntary program to ENGS 21 students who wished to try out the IE program in addition to their projects. Four students joined in, and we worked together for the duration of the term. They found the experience worthwhile, but, as there was no direct relationship between this material and their projects, they didn’t recommend that I incorporate the hours of training into the course as ENGS 21, was already intense.

Nearly 20 years later I am still intrigued with the IE educational strategy and occasionally use it with students looking for an additional perspective on how to learn. Myron was a true visionary who led the Thayer faculty to develop our novel teaching approach using systems for the analytical side and project courses to stimulate the design side of the engineering mind. I have much to thank Myron for as I have inherited the project course that most impressed me as a student and provided guidance that has led me to treasure and appreciate the opportunity to teach engineering design and problem solving to hundreds of students over the years.

An Ongoing Influence

By Elsa Garmire, Dean Emerita and Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor Emerita

I first met Myron Tribus at a conference. I don’t remember when or where, but it was before 1990 in the Bay Area of California. I heard him make comments from the floor about engineering education, and I decided then and there that he was the smartest man I’d ever heard. I went up to him afterwards and asked questions. He was friendly, open and I became convinced he was one of the nation’s great Renaissance geniuses. I was careful to remember his name.

In 1995 I visited Dartmouth College to interview to be dean of Thayer School. There I learned about the most exciting engineering school in America. I was quite surprised to discover that this same Myron Tribus had totally transformed the school 25 years earlier. The institutional memory of his tenure burned bright, and the faculty universally supported his ideas for project-based, interdisciplinary engineering education. I agreed in all respects. As a result of Tribus and his leadership, Dartmouth had become an innovative leader, providing proof of how effective this new approach to engineering education was. My coming to Dartmouth was definitely motivated by the fact that I knew Myron and admired his brilliance.

While I was Dean, Myron and friends funded the Myron Tribus Professorship of Engineering Innovation. Professor John Collier ’72 Th’73 ’75 ’77 was awarded this because, over the years, he had continuously championed the project-based course Dean Tribus had introduced, Introduction to Engineering. This is now Thayer’s most popular engineering sciences course and provides students with a basis for their innovative education, featuring the interdisciplinary systems approach that Dean Tribus also introduced.

It is partly thanks to the Tribus initiatives of the 1960s that the National Academy of Engineering awarded Thayer with the 2014 Gordon Prize for its successful program in developing future engineering leaders. Tribus’ impact has lasted more than 50 years. He will be long be remembered at Thayer School of Engineering.

Categories: The Great Hall, Tribute

Tags: curriculum, entrepreneurship, history, leadership

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