Perspective: 150 Years and Counting
By Joseph J. Helble, Dean
Earlier this year, the Thayer community gathered for a celebration to mark the start of our sesquicentennial year commemorating the founding of our school by U.S. Army Colonel and Brevet Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer, valedictorian of the Dartmouth Class of 1807.
In his long-serving capacity as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Colonel Thayer brought the foundations of contemporary engineering education to a young United States. In April of 1867, at the age of 81, he sent a letter to Dartmouth President Asa Dodge Smith stating his intention to make a gift that would enable “the establishment and maintenance of a Department or School of Architecture and Civil Engineering connected with Dartmouth College, the institution in which I was educated and in the prosperity of which as my Alma Mater I feel the deepest interest.”
Three months later, on July 4, 1867, Thayer’s intention was formalized in an agreement committing an initial sum of $40,000—which he later increased to $70,000—and outlining the curriculum for a two-year course of study, designed to be undertaken by students who had completed a general education.
With that gift, the Thayer School of Engineering came into being.
A few of the nation’s engineering programs are older, generally tracing their roots to programs in applied science that started a few years earlier. But from its beginning, the Thayer School of Engineering has been different, founded as a professional school, not as a stand-alone but as a complement to a broad college education.
It isn’t much of a stretch to say that Colonel Thayer would recognize his ideas in the school of today. His notion of an engineering education built on a more general foundation, highly unusual in its day, lives on, enabling our undergraduates to experience a program integrating the liberal arts and engineering in a way that leaves them well-prepared to adapt—and lead—in a changing world. What he gave us, however, was more than a curriculum and an organizational structure. Thayer established a philosophy, one that challenges us to see the world of engineering broadly, to draw knowledge from all corners, and to understand that the true measure of engineering is not in the cleverness of the technology, but in how it touches and improves lives. It is this philosophy that over 150 years has encouraged us to experiment—to eliminate disciplinary degrees in the early 1960s, to build a design-focused project-based curriculum, to bring together engineering and business in a joint Tuck-Thayer program that led to a pioneering MEM degree, and to focus much of our research in areas of clear societal need, such as medicine and energy.
It is this philosophy that has encouraged the intellectual risk-takers, and over the past few years, has brought increasing recognition to the school, from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, to the historic graduation of a majority-female engineering class, to seeing two of our faculty members (an impressive 5 percent of our growing tenure-track faculty) elected to the NAE, to the Mobile Virtual Player BE capstone design project team receiving national headlines and Super Bowl coverage for their efforts to reduce concussive head injury, to a member of our faculty this year receiving the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the world’s highest engineering award.
The philosophy that Colonel Thayer handed down to us continues to excite and inspire us, providing a dynamic foundation for our vision for growth, for deep and integrated partnership with computer science, and for the next 150 years.
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