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Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies Program

Freedom to Choose / Freedom to Create / Freedom to Travel

Dr. David Gillette

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E-mail: David Gillette

Study Abroad • Senior Project • Change of Major • Liberal Arts side of LAES

"How I Found My Way To LAES"

I found my way to the LAES program by building a time machine when I was ten years old.

My family moved often as I grew up so I spent a lot of time in the back of our station wagon gazing out the window or reading in a quiet corner once we arrived. My one constant as we shifted across the country was the local library. I checked out mostly science fiction books, some good, some awful. If I found an author I liked, I read everything by that writer that I could find on the shelf. I would ask the librarians for similar writers and stories, and I read those books too. I discovered H.G. Wells by reading a terrible science fiction book about a distant planet filled with tiny gopher-like artists who were fighting giant mechanical birds. An advertisement on the back of that book led me to a Star Trek novelization that was mostly about Spock and the history of the planet Vulcan. The author’s introduction for the Star Trek book led me to the books of Jules Verne, then to H.G. Wells and finally to “The Time Machine.”

The machine in H.G. Wells’ story seemed to be fairly simple—a chair mounted on a kind of sled, some directional controls in front, and a spinning disk in back that reflected light in a special way. I figured I could build one so I started making models in my bedroom, graduating to full-scale versions I constructed in my garage from mechanical junk. This obsession annoyed my family as my projects kept getting in their way. I was constantly rebuilding recent inventions which had been crushed underfoot or kicked to the side. 

None of my time machines worked, but the idea of making something that could move me backward and forward through the story of time never left me. I also became interested in why and how people make machines and how they use them. Building machines and telling stories seems to be the same process for me, you can’t have one without the other.

As I got older, I eventually realized that libraries were the time machine I was trying to build as a child, and they were everywhere. The first thing I did when we moved to a new town was find the library. I still do this, no matter where I go. I also discovered there were movie theaters in every new town, serving as additional time machines that told stories in the dark using a big clattering machine in the back which moved through time using a special, spinning strip of light. In college I studied how these movie machines work, and how stories function. I was interested in computers and film, literature and space ships, human history and robots. It all seemed to be the same thing to me—creating things, putting them to use, and surrounding them with stories.

As a teacher I believe that we truly learn something by making it, and talking about it with others as we put it together. We do this when learning foreign languages, lifting words and grammar from a book and into life as we move through a country, trying to find our way to somewhere else. We do this when we make a computer program that helps us take photos of our dog with our phone, or send moving images of ourselves into space then back down to a friend’s computer on the other side of the globe as we spend the evening talking about the latest Star Wars movie or TikTok meme.

When I was asked to join a group of people building a new program at Cal Poly that combined art and engineering, I thought that was a natural progression from everything else I had been working on thus far. I immediately said, “Yes. Let’s go."

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