By Kerry Trotter
Photographs by John Sherman
Create. Improve. Enhance. That’s what engineers do.
“When I came here I was really excited that you could minor, you could double major, and you could modify major,” says Laura Kier ’12, an engineering and public policy modified major. “The flexible academic structure was exactly what I was searching for.”
On average during the last six years, 33 percent of engineering students have opted to do a modified major. “It’s extremely valuable if you’re passionate about some specific thing,” says Andrew Wong ’12, who has modified engineering with environmental sciences.
Students regularly modify engineering with biology, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, environmental sciences, public policy, and studio art—the most popular. A new neuroscience modified major is pending final Dartmouth approval. Students can also submit their own ideas for modifying engineering with a subject such as philosophy.
“This program is continually evolving and changing,” says Thayer School Dean Joseph J. Helble. “For a student, of course, there are advantages. It’s a chance to combine disparate interests.”
Whereas the engineering major requires 10 courses, the modified major consists of six engineering courses and four courses in the extra field of study. The modified major builds on the fact that all Dartmouth students—engineering majors included—take a full range of liberal arts courses.
“Our students have more breadth than the typical engineer coming out of other universities,” says Helble. The modified major, he says, “puts engineering on an equal footing with the liberal arts.”
The modified major also widens the engineering door. “I think it’s a way that students who came to Dartmouth not thinking at all about engineering discover engineering,” Helble says.
And many of those students stay with engineering. Seventy-five percent of modified majors remain at Thayer to complete the bachelor of engineering degree after earning the bachelor of arts degree. Modified major graduates have gone on to careers in design, architecture, technology startups, and other ventures that depend on multiple talents and skills.
Here, five students tell us about their take on their modified majors.
Engineering Modified with Philosophy
Why Engineering: I took a lot of prerequisites for engineering coincidentally. I was interested in physics and wanted to take some math. My roommate, who was an engineering major, asked me why I was taking all the same classes she was. I was also taking philosophy classes and didn’t want to give them up. The more I took of both of them, the more they overlapped in interesting ways.
Why Philosophy: I see philosophy as the basis for the sciences. It poses fundamental questions: How do you know what you know? How do you know that any of this is true? Is it because you can see it? Is it because you can feel it?
The Combination: I’ve joked with friends that I’m taking the most practical major and the least practical major. They’re such different types of work. It’s really nice to be able to sit down and work through a problem set and just focus on that and then take what almost feels like a break and think about philosophy—do the reading and sit and interpret what I’ve read. There’s a concrete moment when you can say, “Oh wow, I actually did learn something from that reading, because now I’m thinking about this in a whole new way.” That’s a really nice moment that comes from philosophy.
Engineering Modified with Public Policy, with an emphasis on Environmental Policy
Why Engineering: I’m interested in problem solving. Engineering and public policy are ways in which you can problem-solve, one from a technical perspective and one from a more conceptual perspective.
Why Public Policy: I love current events and everything related to politics, but I realized that wasn’t going to be something that fit for me.
The Combination: When you work in the engineering world, you also use the tools you learn in public policy. You’re serving a human need, you can relate to people and see how your technologies are serving the lives of others. In terms of the environmental-policy aspect of my studies, I really like the idea of sustainable design. My take on my major is that I will be able to survey human needs, understand environmental policy, and engineer solutions to our increasingly unsustainable world.
Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Why Engineering: I wanted the chance to build something, the chance to make my impact on the world through some kind of creation.
Why Studio Art: My parents are engineers, but my grandfather was a painter. I have art in my blood. Some people are gifted in the technical sense, and some people are gifted in the creative sense. I think I’m somewhere in-between.
The Combination: The way I want to apply art is through design, which is the intersection of studio art and engineering. It gives me a chance to have an actual impact on the world. You can affect the world through design; for example, buildings shape the way we live, and street signs affect the way we drive on the road. I took both “Product Design” and “Science of Materials” last term and worked harder than I ever worked in my whole life. Product Design is basically four inventions in a three-month span. Inventing something every two weeks while trying to learn about the atomic structure of ceramics and metals kind of makes your head hurt.
Engineering Modified with Environmental Sciences
Why Engineering: I really enjoy math and science and found myself gravitating toward engineering. I also really like the practicality of it, the applied-ness of engineering.
Why Environmental Sciences: I grew up in Portland, Ore., where there’s an emphasis on being green. I appreciate environmental sciences for the lens through which it allows you to see engineering. You can build stuff, you can create amazing things, but are you doing it in a conscious way? Are you including factors beyond how novel or how cool it is? Are you including factors of environmental sustainability, like what materials you are using or how much energy you’re using? I think it really provides a strong framework through which you can approach any kind of engineering.
The Combination: One of the reasons I came to Dartmouth and didn’t want to go to a purely technical school was the liberal arts aspect, taking a broader perspective on what goes into engineering. It’s really important for me to take the engineering, the practical and the environmental—the moral, you could say—and put those together in a way that creates something novel. It would be cool to do materials engineering, but I would also enjoy working on appropriate technologies in developing countries. Using engineering to help people achieve a better standard of living would be great.
Engineering Modified with Environmental Sciences, with a Minor in Biology
Why Engineering: I wanted to build something with my two hands and know that what I’m building or what I’m trying to do is going to solve a problem somewhere.
Why Environmental Sciences: I would like to go into something where I could reconcile developing needs of countries along with environmental needs.
The Combination: I’m still trying to balance the two subjects. I’ve taken a sustainability class that incorporates both engineering and environmental science. I’m also working with biology professor Celia Chen and engineering professor Mark Borsuk on modeling mercury cycling in a stream environment or estuary environment. We’ll run a computer program to see, under certain parameters, how much mercury will leave the sediment and go into the water and how much will get taken up by fish, and how that will impact humans down the line.
—Kerry Trotter is a writer based in the Upper Valley.
For more photos from this issue, visit our Summer 2011 set of images on Flickr.