Needham, MA—Sherra Kerns, vice-president for innovation and research at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, puts a new twist on the old swimming analogy to describe the new school.
"Usually, people learn to swim by learning how to work in the shallow end of the pool. They learn all of the components, like kicking and floating, and then they put that together. And after they gain confidence, they're allowed to swim in the deep end. Olin's approach is to teach you to swim in the deep end of the pool."
For example, the Olin curriculum enables students to begin projects within a matter of weeks, rather than waiting until the all-important junior and senior years to get to the good stuff.
How did the young "swimmers" find the experience? Thomas Cecil, part of the pioneer Olin class, says that the project-based learning is his favorite aspect of Olin. "It's rewarding at the end of the semester to have a physical product such as a Van de Graaff generator, and to be able to say, 'yeah, I built that, and I can understand what's going on in there.'"
Olin, which is operating on a $400 million commitment from the F.W. Olin Foundation, completed its first year of teaching this past May. (Franklin W. Olin was an engineer from Vermont who later went on to found the Olin Corporation, a Fortune 1000 company). The graduating class of 2006 is made up of 75 students hailing from 34 states and Costa Rica, some of whom turned down offers from such prestigious engineering programs as MIT, Caltech, and Tufts for the opportunity to be pioneers in engineering education.
All students are given a full four-year scholarship, which is currently estimated to be worth approximately $148,000. Despite the automatic scholarship, Susan Fredholm, a member of the class of 2006, asserts that most, if not all, students had not chosen the school for this factor.
"Many students were receiving similar offers from other schools," she points out. "I knew that I wanted to go here at Candidates Weekend," she says, referring to the rigorous interviewing process Olin performs each year. At Candidates' Weekend, students are interviewed separately and in teams, and they spend time working on projects with their team members.
But it's not just students choosing Olin. Dr. Mark Somerville, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Olin, first heard about plans for the school when he was a graduate student at MIT. After teaching physics at Vassar College for a few years, he jumped at the opportunity to join the Olin faculty. Like many others, he would have liked to change some things about his engineering education, and being a part of curriculum planning at Olin gave him the perfect opportunity.
"How could I turn down the opportunity to be a part of a new institution?" Somerville asks.
Naturally, Olin isn't the only institution that has recognized the need for change in engineering education. Since the 1980s, the National Science Foundation had been calling for engineering schools to further emphasize such essentials as teamwork, communication, and business. And there are many schools that are keeping up with the times and introducing new programs (see the sidebar for some examples).
Still, Olin has an advantage over most schools in that it is operating unencumbered by any established or outdated practices or traditions.
Somerville says Olin's curriculum planning is an ongoing process. "If we ever say it's completed, we will have failed at our mission."
Part of Olin's mission is to include students in the continuous planning of the college. Before Olin opened its doors, its founders invited twenty-nine "student partners" to help them shape the school's vision. The students, agreeing to delay their freshman year, spent one year (receiving no college credit) providing input and testing the new curriculum. They initiated extracurricular organizations, launched a student government, and helped influence student-life policies.
"When I first heard about the Olin Partner idea, I didn't know how I would be able to help design a college, having never been to one yet," says Fredholm, a student partner. "But after Candidates Weekend, I was sold on the idea. I knew that working one-on-one with faculty and staff to design a curriculum and student culture for a brand new school would be a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Although engineering school is notorious for being difficult, slow-going, and crammed with coursework, the founders of Olin felt that there was still room for students to benefit from segments of a liberal arts education. They believed that an engineering education with a greater emphasis on creativity and communication could only result in better engineers.
The first two years of an Olin education are comprised of arts, humanities, and social science courses (termed AHS), real-time systems courses, and cohorts. Cohorts are course blocks equivalent to three individual courses that tie in two disciplinary topics with a project. Students spend varying periods of time learning the fundamentals of engineering from their math and science professors, and then employ these theories with their project professors. They may choose the project section they wish to work on, and sections so far have included developing a compressed-air engine for a dragster, devising water-powered machines, and creating kinetic sculptures. Nearly all work is done in teams, an important element of the Olin curriculum. Although students will not choose a major until their junior year, they will have the option of majoring in electrical and computer engineering; mechanical engineering; or they can take on the general one-size-fits-all "engineering" major and then tailor it.
Rather than teaching the fundamentals of engineering before allowing students to fully immerse themselves in projects, the Olin faculty prefers to have students engage in activities where they may not have all of the necessary skills to do so. Although some of this, like all Olin policies, may be subject to change, the school employs the old adage of teaching people to fish rather than simply cooking them dinner.
"We're trying to create life-long learners," Kearns says. "We give them problems for which they do not already have all of the information that they need, and we guide them as they make decisions." By using this philosophy, Olin is helping to eliminate the students' frustrated question of "why do we need to know this?" as well as the professors' insistence to "study this, and I'll tell you later why it's important."
One selling point for many of the students who applied was the seemingly increased emphasis on creativity that the Olin curriculum has. Students are encouraged to follow what's deemed their "passionate pursuits," and Fredholm says that this influenced her decision to attend the school.
"I've been dancing since I was four years old," she says. "And while other schools appreciated the dance background, they would not have encouraged me to continue to pursue this passion in college.
But does placing an emphasis on creativity in education produce a more or less competent engineer? After all, there is a fixed amount of hours in four years of education, and it's quite possible that spending too much time on creative pursuits could lead to a lack in something else. But it's not really a question of better or worse, says John Orr, a professor and department head of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a school just forty miles from Olin. "If, in addition to some business courses, Olin leaves out a technical course, it will result in a differently prepared engineer, not a less prepared one," he maintains.
Somerville takes this a step further, saying he wouldn't be the least bit surprised if many of Olin graduates went on to careers not typically thought of requiring an engineering education. "I think we could certainly consider ourselves successful if a fraction goes on to medical or law school, or if a fraction goes on to start their own companies or work at start-up companies. We're viewing the engineering degree as a preparation for life, not just a preparation for engineering."
Orr says that he's impressed with what Olin has done so far. But, he adds quickly, WPI also has an innovative program. Many schools do.
"Perhaps one of Olin's greatest accomplishments could be to legitimatize the value of undergraduate engineering," Orr says. "Value has always seemed to come from the prestigious graduate research, rather than the undergrad engineering education. It's not just a matter of getting the fundamentals until you get to graduate school." (Currently, Olin is only an undergraduate school, although there are future plans to include a graduate school that will be open to Olin alumni only.)
There is a lot riding on the shoulders of the future Olin graduates. For all its hype and potential, the school's true success won't be realized for at least several more years. It won't be until the class of 2006 is making its contributions to society—or lack thereof—that a true measurement can be taken.
|Class of 2006
||51% / 49%
|Middle 50% of SAT scores:
|National Merit Scholarship Program Finalists:
|U.S. Presidential Scholars:
|High school valedictorians or salutatorians: