I’ve found that engineering conjures up a different picture for just about everyone I’ve talked to, from the Dilbert-esque cubicle dweller staring at a computer screen, to Tony Stark welding together some awesome new robot suit to save the world. In my experience as a engineering major at Dartmouth, it’s a mix between the two extremes. Sometimes it’s long hours trying to find a misplaced semicolon in my Matlab code, sometimes it’s high-fives and hugs as an hare-brained experiment held together by duct tape and desperation finally works, and sometimes it’s even a little bit of world-saving.
First things first – the coursework part of the major can be confusing. There are two undergrad degree programs at Dartmouth: you start with the Bachelor of Arts in Engineering Sciences, which is a standard 4-year Liberal Arts degree. Then, about two thirds of these ‘AB’ students go on to pursue a Bachelor of Engineering degree, which traditionally takes a fifth year. The AB as a solo degree is usually geared toward students who aren’t planning on becoming professional engineers (consulting, medicine, etc.), while the BE is geared at students who are interested in professional engineering or advanced degrees in their field. The AB has been an awesome experience thus far, especially since it requires you to explore a variety of different engineering disciplines rather than specializing early. You start with intro classes in math, chem, physics, and computer science, then move on to core engineering classes, usually in sophomore year. These core classes are really cool, since you get to see how a lot of problems in seemingly different scientific areas can be modeled and tackled with the same set of problem-solving tools. There’s also plenty of lab and project experience, even that early on. After the core classes, you move on to distributive and gateway classes, choosing from a few different disciplines. A lot of these classes have useful applications regardless of what you eventually want your career to be. In my case, I’m a chemical engineer hoping to go into energy, but I still took materials science and environmental engineering classes along with the standard chemical engineering and thermodynamics courses. From there, it’s on to higher-level specialized classes and a thesis or capstone design project. If you plan on the BE, it’s an extra year or so of advanced classes in a concentration of your choosing (mechanical, electrical, etc.). You can finish the BE at the same time as your AB and graduate in four years, but it’s tough. I’m taking two extra terms next year and I’m really glad I have the chance to take more electives and liberal arts classes while I’m at Dartmouth.
This year, I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on my capstone design project: a cheap, home-scale device to remove arsenic from drinking water in rural areas. Like almost every other project in the engineering program, it’s in a small group, which is great because it’s a way to share ideas and learn from each other as you learn more from your own research. These senior design projects are always in collaboration with another company or organization who is interested in bringing Dartmouth students in on the project. We’ve been working with VillageTech Solutions, a non-profit out of California, and it’s been really incredible to do engineering work this in-depth and important this early in my career. One of our group members even travelled to Nepal over winter break for a field study! I still haven’t really processed the fact that this project has the potential to legitimately improve or even save lives when it’s eventually deployed, but it’s easily been my most personally rewarding academic experience of that last four years. Hopefully I’ll post a picture in the next couple weeks when we get our full-size prototype working.
My capstone project team with the dean of the engineering school and Skip Stritter from VillageTech
Another great thing about a Dartmouth education is how much the professors care about undergraduates. I’ve had several undergraduate research experiences already, either working as a Presidential Scholars research intern (not as pompous as it sounds) building a device to measure the permeability of snow using sound waves instead of digging core samples.
My permeability sensor (remember that experiment held together by duct tape and desperation?…)
I also spent my off-term junior year on campus doing full-time research on ice samples (I just couldn’t get enough of the Hanover winter, so I decided to spend it working in a literal freezer) and I surprisingly learned a lot about theoretical science even while a lot of the job was building things and working with my hands.
It turns out ice is really pretty when you shine some polarized light through it.
Even though engineering has been a lot of work, I’m really glad I chose to stick with it. The opportunity to learn from amazing faculty, give back to the community, and build some really cool stuff has been completely worthwhile. It’s also a really collaborative environment, where nobody is terrifyingly competitive or overly concerned with a few hundreths of a point on their GPA (oh hey pre-med). It’s a real community, doing really awesome things.
Anyway, sorry for the long post, I’ll be back next week. Happy Presidents’ Day!