Professors Who Invent Attract Engineering Students – Here’s Why

Posted By Terri Williams on March 10, 2017 at 8:51 am
Professors Who Invent Attract Engineering Students – Here’s Why

To our readers: Today, GoodCall® writer Terri Williams takes an expanded look at how professors who invent can often be a college’s best recruiters for – not to mention inspirations to – top engineering students.


The complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor. Doesn’t sound familiar? It should: Every time you take a photo with your camera phone, you’re using the CMOS image sensor chip invented by Dr. Eric R. Fossum. His sensor, a “camera on a chip” technology, led to Skyping, selfies, such medical treatments as the nonsurgical pill camera, and the cameras found in automobiles and police body cams.

For his efforts, Fossum was recently awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the highest global award in this discipline. In addition to being a Queen Elizabeth Prize Laureate, Fossum, who was inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame and has worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, also is a professor of engineering, and director of the PhD Innovation Program in the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Who wouldn’t want to be a student in one of his classes?

Why professors who invent appeal to prospective engineers

“The idea of creating new things from scratch is attractive for students – it motivates their creative-thinking process,” Fossum tells GoodCall®. “It’s one thing to tell students to keep trying to find solutions in the face of setbacks, but inventors can give them real examples of hitting roadblocks, and show that despite challenges, real monumental success is possible by persistently looking at problems from different angles.”

Lawrence Larson is the founding dean of engineering and a professor of engineering at Brown University in Providence, R.I. With more than 40 patents, he’s one of the professors who invent.His research areas include wireless, power amplifier, GPS, LTE (long term evolution), and OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing). Larson tells GoodCall® that inventors who are professors attract students because inventing is exciting. “It’s one of the most fun things any person can do, and inventors-engineers are privileged to have jobs and careers that support their passion.”

When it comes to professors who invent, the possibilities are exciting and the level of excitement is contagious. “It’s not hard to see why it’s fun – inventors use their creativity, their deep training in science, and their hard work to make the world a better place,” Larson explains. “There is nothing like the satisfaction that an inventor gets when they see their idea work for the first time, when they see it being produced, and when they see it in the hands of millions of people – it’s thrilling.”

These possibilities and the collaborative nature of inventing also attract students. T. Kyle Vanderlick, dean of the school of engineering & applied science and the Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering at Yale University, tells GoodCall®, “The excitement in engineering is about problem solving, making the world a better place, working in teams.”

Vanderlick points to Yale’s Center for Engineering and Design as one example. “It is a space where students from all over campus – not just engineering – can come together and work together under the mentorship of engineers, artists, etcetera.” Students come to the Center from a variety of backgrounds and Vanderlick says the goal is to get them excited about inventing.

One of the courses, Musical Acoustics and Instrument Design, connects music and engineering. The class helps students learn how to design and build instruments – but they also compose music and play it for their final exam.

“By creating these types of spaces and opportunities beyond what even one professor may do in a classroom, students can feel the vibe and get excited,” Vanderlick says.

The invention effect

These types of environments surrounding professors who invent and colleges that nurture prospective student-inventors also encourage students to take risks and unleash their inner innovator. Some of Dartmouth’s students created a Mobile Virtual Player (MVP) – a motorized, remote-controlled dummy – as a safer way for football players to practice tackling by reducing the potential for concussions. The MVP has been featured on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and is used in the training camps of various professional football teams, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco 49ers.

Dartmouth doctoral candidate Jiaju Ma is another student who became an inventor himself. Ma tells GoodCall®, “I received offers from other schools, but 90 percent of the reason I picked Dartmouth was because of Professor Fossum.”  Ma says he was excited about the opportunity to work with an inventor who had industry experience. “I’m always impressed by him – his brain works very fast; he’s thoughtful and creative.” Ma came to Dartmouth in 2012, and since then, he’s worked with Fossum on the Quanta Image Sensor (QIS), which can greatly enhance low-light sensitivity.

In June, after Ma completes his Ph.D., he will also make the move from inventor to entrepreneur. Ma will launch a startup, Gigajot, with Fossum to commercialize the QIS.

Professors who invent and the STEM pipeline

Fostering an environment of creating and collaborating is important to providing a strong pipeline of students and graduates in engineering and the other STEM disciplines. “There is a tremendous amount of talent that is not being tapped to solve the science and technology problems that the world faces,” Joseph J. Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, tells GoodCall®. “There are major challenges in energy, the environment, in health care, the list goes on – and we need to put as many talented minds toward solving them as we can.”

Certainly, everyone doesn’t need to be an engineer. However, more people need to be exposed, inspired, and given a choice. “My experience is that many more young people would like to be scientists, engineers and inventors, but they get discouraged early,” Larson says. “I think it’s a real loss when someone is discouraged from something that they would be very good at and enjoy, and the world would be a better place if they had been encouraged to pursue it.”

Howie Choset is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His research has resulted in robotic snakes that can perform search and rescue, provide visualization and steer around internal body parts in medical procedures, and make manufacturing more efficient while creating more jobs.

Choset tells GoodCall®, “It goes without saying that we should attract students to engineering, computer science, etc., but as an educator, I just want to see students in fields that fit their talents and interests.”

But this doesn’t always happen, he says: “For example, women may be dissuaded from going into math because of culture, a belief that they can’t do it, or the introductory material may be presented in a nonintuitive way. In fact, a study revealed that performance in Calculus I was a determining factor in whether women persisted in STEM.

Choset’s robotics introductory course includes a lab that uses custom-designed Legos. His biorobotics lab provides an opportunity for students to gain practical experience designing various types of snake robots, elephant trunks, and other problem-solving tools.

And even students who may have no desire to pursue a STEM career can benefit from this type of exposure. According to Vanderlick, “At Yale, we show students how attractive engineering is and we also let them know that just because they study engineering doesn’t mean they have to be an engineer.”

For example, she says patent lawyers typically come from engineering. “This discipline teaches students how to think quantitatively, and design new systems – it’s not about just designing a new phone, but designing a solution to a problem,” Vanderlick explains. “You invent models – and that’s what cool about it.”

Other ways to interest students

While these stories are inspiring, professors who invent are not prevalent at every campus, and every school doesn’t have the resources and prestige of an Ivy League university or Carnegie Mellon. What are other ways to get students interested in engineering besides inspiration from and contact with professors who invent?

“One of the great things about engineering is that you can approach it from many different directions,” according to Larson. “You can approach it as an inventor, but you can also approach it from a more scientific perspective, where you are trying to understand how a physical system works at some deep level, and then apply that knowledge in a new way.”

Larson says engineering can also be approached from an almost artistic perspective that focuses on design. “Any one of these perspectives is very exciting and satisfying, and I think there are great jobs and great opportunities in the engineering field from any way you want to approach it.”

Helble provides four more ways to interest students in engineering:

  • Provide students with different and flexible pathways to enter engineering or to simply explore engineering before committing to a major. At Dartmouth, students first explore a liberal arts-based engineering curriculum before pursuing an ABET-accredited program. This flexibility allows them to explore different engineering fields, gain exposure to the creative aspects of engineering design, and connect their studies to the real-world challenges that motivated them to consider an engineering education in the first place.
  • Emphasize open-ended, project-based, hands-on learning experiences from the very first engineering class. This is far more engaging for students than listening to lectures and working alone on textbook problems that others have already solved.
  • Provide all students – even those not pursuing engineering as a major – the opportunity to take entry-level engineering design classes and project-based classes suitable for their level of mathematical preparation. This helps them explore the creative side of engineering without having to commit as an engineering major. This approach helps build interest across a broad range of students, and as a clear associated benefit, helps diversify engineering.
  • Give first-year students the chance to explore a different kind of “hands-on” engineering right from the start by supporting one-on-one engineering research experiences directly with a faculty mentor. Even though the students have had little to no engineering classroom training, they learn they can make a contribution and begin to understand more clearly the innovative and experimental side of engineering.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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