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Colleges Rev Up Dull Engineering Courses

Dartmouth, MIT mix practical fun projects with math classes and lectures on theory

ENGINEERING schools are known for heavy theory and difficult math. Usually, they are not places for humanities or social-science majors.

But they are places where people learn to make useful things. That can be exhilarating, which may be why students endure the endless lectures on theory. It also may be why students from diverse fields - history, government, music - join would-be engineers twice a year at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering to take Engineering Science 21.

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Initiated 30 years ago, the course was designed to change the way engineering is taught. At the time, engineering disciplines - electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic, for instance - were thought to be too compartmentalized. But in the world outside the classroom, the invention of new products typically draws on a combination of skills.

The course tries to duplicate that experience on campus. ``The idea is to give students, at a very early stage of engineering, the full engineering experience,'' says John Collier, who has taught Engineering Science 21 for more than a decade. The experience of developing and testing a new product gives engineering students ``a context for the rest of their work'' - all that tough theory. The course is required at the Thayer School.

But it's open to everyone at Dartmouth, and word has gotten around that it's fun, if hard. Typically, 10 to 30 percent of the students are not engineering majors.

``Two friends were on me to take it,'' says Andrew Silvernail, a senior government major. ``They said it was the best course at Dartmouth.'' The project he worked on this fall was a wheelchair with wheels that can be shifted back to allow easier transfer to a car or other tight area.

That project, like the other 15 in the class, occupied four or five students - a ``team'' - for 10 weeks. It comes very close to being full-time work, Mr. Silvernail and other Engineering Science 21 veterans say, with eight written and oral presentations before a panel of professors, construction of a prototype, and product and market testing. The latter involves contacting people likely to use the item and developing a set of specifications. Students also talk to people in related industries to see if their proposed new product already exists. They find that companies are often willing to donate materials.

The engineering school gives each team in the course $500 to finance its enterprise. The school's machine shops and other facilities are available, and Professor Collier and many of his colleagues are on hand for consultation.

Each time the course is taught, Collier specifies a general theme for all the projects. This fall it was ``transportation.'' The teams came up with an amazing array of inventions: off-road roller blades with large wheels suitable for rough or soft surfaces; a device that uses cellular-phone technology to locate stolen bicycles; a mechanism for more easily mounting bikes on roof racks; a sonar device to help truck drivers back into tight spots; and an adjustable riding saddle that's more comfortable for horses, to name just a few.

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At least five of the students' creations are marketable, in Collier's view. ``I'd be astonished if they don't show up on the market within two years,'' he says. Some of the teams are considering applying for patents.

The hands-on approach evident in Dartmouth's course is used in various forms at other engineering schools. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., for instance, offers a variety of courses that require students to work in teams or as individuals to develop new products or machines. Mechanical-engineering Professor Woody Flowers has taught a number of these, including a current 11-week senior design course in which the teams are much larger - 26 members each - and the project is relatively complex: the development of a battery-powered rider mower.

There are a couple of basic rules for these courses, says Professor Flowers. The item being designed ``has to be new,'' he says. ``Redoing an old thing is not likely to provide a good creative experience.'' And ``it absolutely has to be possible, to avoid an exercise in frustration.''

For years, Flowers taught a lower-division course, Mechanical Engineering 270, that challenges individual students to devise machines designed for a particular task, like putting ping-pong balls into a container. That course is set up as a contest, with student-inventors competing against each other. It lets people try their creative wings as engineers and helps prepare them for later work on teams, Flowers says.

MIT's offerings include Electrical Engineering 6370, a course developed and run by students themselves. Held every January, like the mechanical-engineering course, it requires the development of a specific-purpose machine, though in this case it's an ``autonomous'' robot, rather than a remotely controlled machine. In the past, tasks given to the robots have included a challenge like stacking blocks in the other guy's ``end zone.'' The materials are a standard kit, including Lego Technic building components, a circuit board (the ``brains''), and various electrical sensors.

Each team in the class pays $50 to $100 for the kit, though the materials are worth up to $1,000. A number of corporations - among them Motorola, Microsoft, Polaroid, and Lego USA - help underwrite the course. Competition is fierce during the one-month run of EE 6370, but the fiercest competition may be the rush to get into the class. This year, 350 students signed up for it, but only 150 could be admitted. ``So we hold a lottery every year,'' says Pankaj Oberoi, a graduate student who helps plan the course.

Why the popularity? It goes back to the ``original point'' of the course, says Matt Domsch, a senior at MIT who took 6370 as a freshmen and has been one of its organizers ever since. ``It was to be a different kind of learning, by having fun instead of sitting in a classroom and being lectured,'' he says. Most years, freshmen win the robot-building contest. That's because advanced teams tend to ``overdesign,'' Mr. Domsch says. They put to too much effort into ``precision'' and not enough into ``robustness.''

For engineering students, hands-on courses like these can be inspiring. Morgan Drmaj was ready to drop engineering after transferring to Dartmouth. ``I was so strung out on the dry, theoretical side of engineering,'' he says. But 10 weeks of toil in Collier's course revived his interest. ``For me,'' he says, ``it's a whole new world of engineering.''

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