Hayden Dahmm '15 on Engineering, Blindness, and Collaboration

Hayden Dahmm '15 presents his research

USA Today College: Blind engineering student set to graduate from Swarthmore 

In seventh grade, Hayden Dahmm '15 created a little bit of electricity.

For a science competition, Dahmm built a small solar collector out of a soda bottle and some pieces of copper that he had oxidized on a hot plate. It emitted a couple of microwatts — and ignited a passion that will soon power him across the Atlantic Ocean.

Dahmm, 22, an honors engineering major at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, will receive his diploma Sunday at the school’s commencement ceremony. Soon after, he will head to Britain through a prestigious Marshall Scholarship to obtain his master’s degree in sustainable energy futures.

During a recent interview, he described himself in five main ways. “I’m a Swarthmore student,” he said. “I’m an engineer. I’m a nerd. I like science. And I’m blind.”

His lack of functional vision is a part of his identity, but there is a reason it appears last on his list.

“Blindness is just an attribute I happen to have,” said Dahmm. “It doesn’t define who I am. I’m just like everybody else. The only difference is that sometimes I need to take in information in different ways.”

Atop his own intellect and hard work, Dahmm has succeeded academically over the past four years through a mix of human and animal kindness, technological innovation and even actual building blocks.

For example, in respect to the latter, in summer 2012 he worked with Swarthmore engineering professor Carr Everbach to create a learning aid partially comprised of repurposed parts from popular K’NEX building sets.

As Dahmm explained, “We took the plastic rods that you snap into the stars and we placed these plastic elements we made on a 3D printer on them to represent the resistors, capacitors, conductors, and other things you’d find in an electrical circuit. I can then snap these together to form whatever electrical diagram I want to make. It allowed me to do things that my sighted peers could do with just a pad and pencil.”

Dahmm and Everbach subsequently collaborated on a more ambitious project aimed at presenting complex data displays in a way Dahmm could understand. The pair named their finished program Sound Plot. It’s an audio adaptation of mathematical diagrams, including those known as scatter plots. 

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Upon graduation and his subsequent relocation to Imperial College London, Dahmm is excited to continue exerting his brainpower toward using the tools of engineering to make energy generation more sustainable.

As he asked, “How can we become less dependent on all this consumerism that generates waste? How can we become a better society that is not as destructive toward the environment? Instead of having no harm, how can we have a positive effect? … If everyone was to look at their lives, they’ve had to face things no matter who they are. I think my story underlines that we can all fix our challenges better if we come together as a community and just work to help one another.”

Read the full story at USA Today College.


The Delaware County Daily Times also profiled Dahmm in a front page feature:

Dahmm is gratified to know that through finding ways to assist himself in his engineering studies that he is already helping to make studies more accessible for others. He noted that the combination of liberal arts studies with his engineering curriculum at Swarthmore has been essential for him in understanding the social context of engineering, which will ultimately lead to successful life solutions.

“It seems like so many important environmental and other technology issues can be understood through science and I want to be part of the solution. Engineering is the application of science to real world challenges,” said Dahmm.

Dahmm will receive full tuition and living expenses to study for two years at any university in the United Kingdom as a recipient of a Marshall Scholarship, founded by an act of British Parliament in 1953 in commemoration of the George C. Marshall Plan through which the United States gave $13 billion to help rebuild European economies after World War II. In October he is planning to commence work on a Master of Science in Engineering in sustainable energy futures at the Imperial College of London.

“I want to look at issues involving electricity and renewable energy generation and consider how to develop business and public policy strategy for advancing renewable energy technology,” said Dahmm, who has served on Swarthmore’s Sustainability Committee.

Read the full article.


An editorial at the Delaware County Daily Times praises Dahmm's perserverance and healthy outlook on life: "Hayden Dahmm is determined to make a difference in the world some day but little does he realize his perseverance in the face of great odds, has already made him an inspiration to many." Read the full editorial


Following commencement, Dahmm also appeared on 6ABC Action News. "Coming in as a Swarthmore student," Dahmm says, "I had to learn to manage my time effectively and use resources around me in the best way possible. That is a challenge every student faces - it just happens that sometimes I had to use tools in slightly different ways."