Perspective: The Place of Projects
By Dean Joseph J. Helble
Project-based learning is much discussed among contemporary educators. Whether for K-12 or university engineering students, the general view is that the classroom experience can be enhanced by hands-on, open-ended project challenges. Mention “project-based learning” to any Thayer School graduate and you are likely to hear about their ENGS 21 project (“Introduction to Engineering”—a prosaic title that doesn’t come close to doing justice to the experience), or their B.E. capstone design experience. To our alumni, even those who never took a Dartmouth undergraduate course, these courses are known for lessons in creativity, design methodology, problem-solving, innovation, and entrepreneurship—the kind of project-based learning that has taken place at the Thayer School of Engineering since the 1960s.
But what many may not know is that the use of “project-based learning” has grown dramatically across the Thayer curriculum. Solid Mechanics (ENGS 33) has long asked students to build, test, and compress a bridge to the point of failure, a clear assessment of their design and predictive abilities. Digital Electronics (ENGS 31), which requires students to propose, design, build, and demonstrate a working digital system using modern field-programmable gate array technology, has seen the development of games, audio processors, and even simple computers. Thermodynamics (ENGS 25)? Students still build a working Stirling engine, as they have for decades. In Machine Engineering (ENGS 76), students design and team-build robots that pick up and deposit objects such as hockey pucks. This spring students in Structural Analysis (ENGS 71) designed and built a wheelchair-accessible treehouse for the local community, with teams of students developing and integrating the individual components of the project. For three years Computer-Aided Design (ENGS 146) has required students to design a twist car (modified this year to a “wiggle car” with non-circular wheels), requiring innovation that goes beyond the relevant patent literature and participation in a public relay race to demonstrate the quality (and speed) of their designs. Using a 1920s electric car as inspiration one year, Power Electronics and Electromechanical Energy Conversion (ENGS 125) had students add ultracapacitors to an electric-assist bicycle to improve the battery efficiency; another year, students designed and built an “electric bungee.” Through our growing research focus in Engineering in Medicine, our course Intermediate Biomedical Engineering (ENGS 57/169) had students work with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center surgeons on technologies for operating rooms. Methods in Biotechnology (ENGS 162) challenged students to develop high-throughput screens for a broad range of applications, including purification of human IgG antibodies. And this isn’t close to a comprehensive list.
No wonder our students choose to spend their spare time doing projects: designing, building, and traveling with the Big Green Bus, developing a hybrid formula car for the now-international Formula Hybrid competition they founded, building and deploying a rover for scientific exploration in Arctic regions, designing and installing small-scale hydropower systems in rural Rwanda. There’s no better way to learn.
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