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Professors Who Invent Attract Engineering Students – Here's Why

Mar 15, 2017   |   by Terri Williams   |   GoodCall

Eric Fossum in the lab
Dr. Eric R. Fossum
and Dartmouth doctoral candidate Jiaju Ma

GoodCall® writer Terri Williams takes an expanded look at how professors who invent can often be a college’s best recruiters for – not to mention inspirations to – top engineering students.


The complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor. Doesn’t sound familiar? It should: Every time you take a photo with your camera phone, you’re using the CMOS image sensor chip invented by Dr. Eric R. Fossum. His sensor, a “camera on a chip” technology, led to Skyping, selfies, such medical treatments as the nonsurgical pill camera, and the cameras found in automobiles and police body cams.

For his efforts, Fossum was recently awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the highest global award in this discipline. In addition to being a Queen Elizabeth Prize Laureate, Fossum, who was inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame and has worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, also is a professor of engineering, and director of the PhD Innovation Program at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Who wouldn’t want to be a student in one of his classes?

Why professors who invent appeal to prospective engineers

“The idea of creating new things from scratch is attractive for students – it motivates their creative-thinking process,” Fossum tells GoodCall®. “It’s one thing to tell students to keep trying to find solutions in the face of setbacks, but inventors can give them real examples of hitting roadblocks, and show that despite challenges, real monumental success is possible by persistently looking at problems from different angles.”...

The invention effect

Steelers use Mobile Virtual Player
The Pittsburgh Steelers use the MVP (Photo by Karl Roser)

These types of environments surrounding professors who invent and colleges that nurture prospective student-inventors also encourage students to take risks and unleash their inner innovator. Some of Dartmouth’s students created a Mobile Virtual Player (MVP) – a motorized, remote-controlled dummy – as a safer way for football players to practice tackling by reducing the potential for concussions. The MVP has been featured on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and is used in the training camps of various professional football teams, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco 49ers.

Dartmouth doctoral candidate Jiaju Ma is another student who became an inventor himself. Ma tells GoodCall®, “I received offers from other schools, but 90 percent of the reason I picked Dartmouth was because of Professor Fossum.” Ma says he was excited about the opportunity to work with an inventor who had industry experience. “I’m always impressed by him – his brain works very fast; he’s thoughtful and creative.” Ma came to Dartmouth in 2012, and since then, he’s worked with Fossum on the Quanta Image Sensor (QIS), which can greatly enhance low-light sensitivity.

In June, after Ma completes his PhD, he will also make the move from inventor to entrepreneur. Ma will launch a startup, Gigajot, with Fossum to commercialize the QIS.

Professors who invent and the STEM pipeline

Fostering an environment of creating and collaborating is important to providing a strong pipeline of students and graduates in engineering and the other STEM disciplines. “There is a tremendous amount of talent that is not being tapped to solve the science and technology problems that the world faces,” Joseph J. Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, tells GoodCall®. “There are major challenges in energy, the environment, in health care, the list goes on – and we need to put as many talented minds toward solving them as we can.”...

Other ways to interest students

... Helble provides four more ways to interest students in engineering:

  • Provide students with different and flexible pathways to enter engineering or to simply explore engineering before committing to a major. At Dartmouth, students first explore a liberal arts-based engineering curriculum before pursuing an ABET-accredited program. This flexibility allows them to explore different engineering fields, gain exposure to the creative aspects of engineering design, and connect their studies to the real-world challenges that motivated them to consider an engineering education in the first place.
  • Emphasize open-ended, project-based, hands-on learning experiences from the very first engineering class. This is far more engaging for students than listening to lectures and working alone on textbook problems that others have already solved.
  • Provide all students – even those not pursuing engineering as a major – the opportunity to take entry-level engineering design classes and project-based classes suitable for their level of mathematical preparation. This helps them explore the creative side of engineering without having to commit as an engineering major. This approach helps build interest across a broad range of students, and as a clear associated benefit, helps diversify engineering.
  • Give first-year students the chance to explore a different kind of “hands-on” engineering right from the start by supporting one-on-one engineering research experiences directly with a faculty mentor. Even though the students have had little to no engineering classroom training, they learn they can make a contribution and begin to understand more clearly the innovative and experimental side of engineering.

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