Are today's engineering students too soft? Judging by our mail, and by a recent Weblog in this space addressing the issue of unhappy engineering students (DN WEBLOG 6.27.05, http://rbi.ims.ca/4398-531), one could hardly be blamed for asking that question. In our editorial, we cited a Princeton Review survey in which engineering colleges dominated the "least happy students" category. We noted that the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Colorado School of Mines, Illinois Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgia Tech, and Rochester Institute of Technology had high "unhappiness quotients."
Many of our readers argued that college engineering curriculums have always been tough. "The engineering/science programs have been compromised to an incredible degree as it is," noted one reader. "Now we have someone crying over the 'quality of life' of engineering students." Another reader wrote that "modern students are a little spoiled. They seem to want to be coddled."
Still, one school's rankings in the newest Princeton Review survey seems to suggest that "student softness" may not be the issue. Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, a tiny Massachusetts-based school, showed up on a host of Princeton Review's top 20 lists, including "best overall academic experience for undergraduates," "professors get high marks," and "professors make themselves accessible," all while earning the highest marks of any school in the country for "best quality of life." At the same time, Olin finished fourth on a list titled "their students never stop studying," and fifth on the "toughest to get into" list (behind only MIT, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard), suggesting that it isn't earning its stripes by babying its students.
Indeed, Olin's administrators insist that their little engineering school is doing well in The Princeton Review surveys because it demands more, not less, of its students. While it requires its students to take the usual complement of math, physics, and core engineering courses, it also engages them with an interdisciplinary educational approach that involves machine shop experience and entrepreneurial projects with local corporations and business schools to provide total immersion and engineering context at each step along the way.
"Engineering material is difficult and unforgiving," notes Sherra Kerns, vice president of innovation and research at Olin. "And a lot of us in the educational community have been approaching that teaching task with a rigorous, forced march through voluminous, tedious material. Clearly, there's an opportunity for reform here."
To be sure, the jury is still out on Olin, mainly because the school is just three years old. But the curriculum is worth watching, if for no other reason, than to determine whether heavy engineering workloads need be inextricably linked with student unhappiness.
"Somehow, there's an attachment to the idea that engineering must be painful, or you're not doing it right," Kerns says. "But the message here is it doesn't have to be that way."
To read letters about student unhappiness from readers, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4398-532. To learn more about Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4398-533.
Chuck Murray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org