Re-engineering the engineer

How tiny Olin College set out to pump new life -- and fun -- into a musty curriculum.

By Michael Myser, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Laughing, clipboard-toting fourth-graders are crammed into a hallway at a college outside Boston watching with evident delight as an 18-inch-long mechanical caterpillar with four suction-cup feet goes wiggling up the window. The 9- year-old evaluators diligently take notes and then move on to where a shoebox-size device called a fire snail is slithering up a windowpane and a motorized flying squirrel is gliding through the air to land with a bump on the floor.

Welcome to the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, a five-year-old educational experiment that's turning the business of training engineers upside down.

Set on a tidy campus of postmodern buildings in Needham, Mass., 17 miles and a paradigm shift away from MIT, Olin has no academic departments, no tenure track, no tuition fees, and no fixed curriculum. What it does have, through its hands-on, project-based, relentlessly interdisciplinary approach, is a radical vision of the future of engineering education that just might work.

"We've redefined what engineering is and what engineering means," says Richard K. Miller, Olin's founding president. "We want to be an irritant that will cause others to make changes."

And changes are desperately needed, because American engineering education is in trouble. While demand for the profession continues to grow, the percentage of U.S. undergraduates studying for it remains low. In 2000, U.S. schools turned out just 95,000 engineers and computer scientists, while American companies imported about the same number from abroad. The shortage became a crisis after 9/11, when the number of visas granted to foreign students was cut dramatically.

The F.W. Olin Foundation (named after a munitions manufacturer who made his fortune supplying the Army during two world wars) had funded 73 buildings on 57 campuses when it decided in 1997 to tackle all these problems at once. So it chartered Olin College with a $460 million endowment and hired Miller, who has a Ph.D. from Caltech and whose own research is in structural dynamics and nonlinear mechanics.

With the help of a handful of faculty hires and 30 students, Miller designed and tested a new course of study and enrolled the first class of undergraduates in 2002.

One area that clearly needed attention was the basic engineering curriculum, which has hardly changed in the past half-century and no longer attracts many prospective students or keeps the ones it gets. William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, calls it a "disgrace" that only 60 to 65 percent of the students who enter engineering programs finish them.

And they're not necessarily flunking out. "Engineering educators work to make this difficult, dry, and dull," says Sherra Kerns, vice president for innovation and research at Olin.

You don't have to spend much time at Olin to sense that something important has changed. Instead of the difficult, and often boring, math and physics classes of the old weed-'em-out-early engineering schools, you find courses like Engineering 2250: User Oriented Collaborative Design.

In a typical session, you might encounter kids dressed in pajamas, sweats, shorts, and sandals and an atmosphere that feels more like an art studio than a classroom. On one spring day, a couple of couches and armchairs occupied the center of the room, and a student sat cross-legged atop a table, philosophizing about the lives and demands of makeup artists. Students in UOCD don't build actual products, touch any technology, or even work a single math problem.

"It doesn't look like engineering," admits Benjamin Linder, the assistant professor who helped create the class.

Olin's curriculum is centered on courses like UOCD and Design Nature -- the class that produced those climbing critters. Miller, 57, a thin, bald, engaging administrator who is prone to analogies, likens the traditional curriculum to a music school where students learn history and theory but never touch their instruments. Olin, by contrast, introduces project-based courses to its students early and often.

Olin also insists that students spend more than a quarter of their time studying business and entrepreneurship, humanities, and social sciences. "Olin really bends over backward to get the students to recognize the interactions between these disciplines," says Constance Bowe, who studied the college as a researcher at Harvard Medical International. To help instill the entrepreneurial spirit, the college created the Olin Foundry, in which the school houses and partially funds as many as a dozen student startups.

Students also experience the business world firsthand through Olin's senior consulting program for engineering. This year 12 corporations -- including Boeing (Charts, Fortune 500), Boston Scientific, Hewlett-Packard (Charts, Fortune 500), and IBM (Charts, Fortune 500) -- paid Olin a combined $700,000 to have groups of five seniors serve as consultants for a full academic year on some of the companies' pressing technological and engineering problems.

"By the time they're seniors, they're nearly operating at a professional level," says David Barrett, the Olin associate professor who heads the program. "It gives them authenticity they wouldn't get in a classroom."

Olin's eclectic mix of arts, entrepreneurship, and old-school engineering appears to be working. One sign is that the college's student retention rate is 91 percent, roughly 50 percent above the average for U.S. engineering schools. Another is that its first class of 66 graduates last spring landed an impressive array of jobs and graduate school placements, including two Fulbright scholarships and four National Science Foundation fellowships. The class even founded three companies.

Outsiders are beginning to take notice of the college, which this spring had 304 undergrads (all on full scholarship) in its five campus buildings. "Olin is certainly innovative," says Frank Huband, executive director at the American Society for Engineering Education. "It's not clear whether you can transfer what it does to a large university, but it does have lessons for us."

Back in his office overlooking the grounds, Miller uses theater and football analogies to talk about Olin's curriculum, professors, and students. But he's direct when discussing what the students are taught. "They're not learning about engineering," he says. "They're learning how to be engineers."

Michael Myser is a writer in Morristown, N.J. Top of page

olin college, engineering, engineers, education, future, training, boeing, hewlett-packard, ibm, boston scientific
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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.