Nuts and Bolts
A few years ago John Collier ’72, Th’77, an engineering professor who has been teaching “Introduction to Engineering” (ENGS 21) since the 1980s, started noticing something remarkable. He usually begins his first session of the course, which attracts three times as many majors as non-majors, by asking students about any hands-on experience they have. In past decades they would say they had taken apart a radio or tinkered with a car engine. But in recent years most students have said they’ve never built anything—they have not constructed a tree house or a box car, haven’t changed a spark plug or drilled a hole. Some, says Collier, even grew up without ever playing with building toys such as Legos or K’Nex.
Collier says that in an information society increasingly focused on knowledge skills, young people are discouraged from becoming handy. High school shop classes have been discontinued, appliances and cars are not designed for repairs, and kids are spending their free time on computers and cell phones.
ENGS 21, which has been taught at the Thayer School of Engineering for more than 40 years, has always been a project course in which students work in teams to solve an engineering challenge and create a new or improved product. Collaboration is an important aspect of the course, says professor Bill Lotko, who has been alternating terms with Collier since 2001. “Engineering is not just about the product. It’s also about the people you need to interact with to get something done.” He sees the team dynamics in ENGS 21 as a microcosm for the professional world students will enter after they graduate. The goal for the course is not to teach specific, limited skills, but to foster an attitude of lifelong learning. Then there is the reality, says Lotko, that engineering is so central to modern society that students in all fields should understand its basic principles. “Whether they’re going to work in business or in medicine or in government or in any other field,” he says, “they need to understand how technology is developed; the economics of it, the ethics of it.”
Collier goes even further and says he would like to see everyone become handy again. “My hope is that we can turn society around,” he says, “because most things we use need to be built. They are not virtual, they are real.”
Students with no hands-on experience, says Collier, are overwhelmed by the idea of having to make something themselves. So in the summer of 2008 he and Lotko started requiring students to spend at least two hours a week in a Thayer lab to learn basic technical skills. During evenings throughout the semester a team of teaching assistants and lab technicians helps instruct students in everything from welding, molding and casting to computer design and the use of lathes and milling machines.
Collier at first worried students would resent having to spend extra time learning skills that might not interest them, but the opposite has turned out to be true. There is such a thirst for hands-on training that students spend much more time in the lab than the required two hours.
“It’s so cool to get to know how all these machines operate,” says Sarah Rocio ’10, who is working on an engineering major modified with environmental studies and a minor in Spanish. “You really get to appreciate how much goes into making just a simple nut and bolt.”
Along with Zakieh Bigio ’10, Betsy Dain-Owens ’10, Catherine Emil ’10 and Sarah Feldman ’11, Rocio is a member of Team Wheezy, whose project is to improve the technology of asthma medication inhalers. Other teams in the class work on products such as a garbage disposal that runs on non-septic wastewater, innovative rock-climbing aids, an automatic detergent-measuring system, improved street lanterns, and an automated range hood with a calibrated smoke sensor designed to conserve energy. The five women of Team Wheezy came up with their product idea because Dain-Owens was suffering from asthma attacks during the brainstorming phase of the project. As she struggled to inhale her medicine and complained about the inefficiency of the dispenser and concerns about whether she was getting the correct dose of medicine, the team realized it had the perfect challenge.
When users of traditional metered-dose inhalers do not precisely synchronize their inhalation with the rate at which the vaporized medicine is sprayed, the medicine doesn’t reach the lungs. Another device, the vaporizer, allows users to inhale the medicine more effectively but is not practical because it is too bulky to carry around.
After nine intense weeks of surveying users, further brainstorming, product design, machine-shop tinkering, efficiency testing, patent research and marketing planning, Team Wheezy is ready to present its product to a review board of four Thayer faculty, including Lotko. The women of Team Wheezy explain how they tried to create a hybrid device that combines the advantages of the two existing devices. They show a small, collapsible plastic chamber that can be attached to the metered-dose inhaler to hold the vaporized medicine so the user can inhale and exhale at a normal breathing rate.
“It was much more complicated than you expected, wasn’t it?” asks Lotko. The women agree, reflecting on the unexpected skills they have learned. They now know how to use a computer-animated design program, prepare input for an injection-molding machine, measure spray patterns, and calculate the electrostatic charge of materials. One of their biggest challenges, they explain, was having to rely on Dain-Owens’ inhaler for most of their experiments. They express appreciation for the guidance of DHMC asthma specialist Dr. Donald Woodmansee, who advised the team. Lotko offers kudos for the students’ outreach efforts, noting that although ENGS 21 teams are encouraged to consult with Thayer faculty and outside experts, it’s quite an achievement to convince a busy medical specialist to spend time on a student project.
Along with encouragement to seek professional expertise, teams also receive $500 from Thayer for project materials. If a team creates a truly exciting new technology, it is urged to work with the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network to bring its product to market.
ENGS 21 is the most resource-intense course at Thayer because of the need for teaching and lab assistants and faculty to assist and evaluate the students. Collier is convinced the outcome is worth the effort. “It raises the bar for the upper-level engineering courses,” he says. “We can expect students to have learned certain skills.”
It can also spark an enthusiasm for engineering among students who previously had not considered themselves technically inclined. Emil, a history major, was so excited about her experience with Team Wheezy—which went on to win the prize for best ENGS 21 project of the term—that she is considering more engineering classes. “Do it!” chorus her teammates. “I have such a wonderful group,” she says.
“Even though we are not all engineers I think we all plan to pursue a life of engineering,” says Bigio. “And by that I mean a life of creativity, practicality and problem-solving.”
Judith Hertog lives in Norwich, Vermont.