— Olin College was founded in the state with over 100 higher educational institutions functioning there already, including the famous MIT. What are the main specific features of Olin College’s approach to training engineers compared to other similar colleges or universities?
That’s right, we are only about 15 miles from Harvard and MIT and all the other universities of the state. But to a certain extent this proximity is a positive aspect for us. Firstly, Olin was founded as a change agent, as an institution designed to reform education, so it’s very useful to have geographic proximity to those big schools so that we can interact with them. Also, the implicit competition associated with that is good for us as far as keeping us on our game. One of the advantages of Massachusetts and the Boston area in particular is that it is the capital of American higher education, so a lot of academics want to come to this area which even helps us with recruiting sometimes.
Speaking of what is different from an educational standpoint, I would say the main difference is Olin’s almost exclusive focus on education and developing students. While research still goes on and other sorts of activities go on as well, research is not as central to us: the core of Olin is an educational core. Besides, we only have undergraduate education (baccalaureate) and no post-graduate programs. So we provide our students with some foundation, some basis to help them prepare for whatever learning they will do next.
We also try to make sure that the students have an opportunity to practice and participate in actual engineering projects. It’s important for us that they get their first engineering experience here rather than when they actually become engineers. In short, as far as our pedagogical philosophy is concerned, I’d say that the Olin program is a design-centric project-based curriculum.
And the second aspect of that philosophy is that as far as content and specific information is concerned Olin College has a more just-in-time learning environment rather than a just-in-case learning environment. So the idea is that it’s more important to learn a number of things deeply in context as opposed to trying to cover an entire textbook and then never really use what’s in it.
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Aerial view of Olin College campus
— Can you tell us a little bit more about this project-based approach and about the advantages it has?
It is pretty obvious that different people have different learning styles, and there is a lot of conversation and debate in educational research about this. Of course, we endorse the idea that an active and interactive learning environment is very important for a very large fraction of students. Particularly for students early in their education. We view our education as a sort of foundation for what they might go on to to do next. And the active learning component is one that gives students an opportunity to internalize what they are learning and to learn in context.
So our students do projects for most of the courses that we have in the curriculum, and a significant part of these projects are tied to actual engineering projects in the outside world. In other words, these are not some artificial assignments designed specifically for students. They are real projects connected with certain businesses, non-government organizations or local communities. And by the end of their 4th year our students will have assembled a portfolio with around two dozens of different completed works so that when it’s time to go on the job market or to apply to a graduate school, they already have some substance to put on the table, so to speak.
The vast majority of these projects are team-based. And it needs to be said that we pay quite a lot of attention to organizing the work of each team. Because, as you probably know, just throwing people together does not necessarily form a team. You also have to put some thought into that and make sure the team functions as a team. This is especially true of teams consisting of first-year students. And in fact this is another fundamental difference between Olin and other similar institutions: our first year is radically different from the first year in most other engineering schools. In the US the traditional first-year engineering program is very highly focused on fundamental math and science alongside some general education courses. There is also typically some introductory engineering course which only gives freshmen students some taste of their future profession. But in Olin it’s completely different: our first-year students are required to take several courses. One of them is called Instrumentation and Measurement. It’s very important because all kinds of measurements is one of the basic things that engineers do. So this courses teaches them to measure things like temperature or displacement and so on, and then to analyze that data. And the thing is, here you can sort of slip in a lot of mathematics and electrical engineering, you just simply don’t package it as math or electrical engineering, you package it as measurement. Another mandatory course we have in the first year is called Modelling and Simulation. And here you can work in a little bit of physics, a little bit of math, a little computing, etc. The third course is called Design Nature, and that’s where we start to talk about design. And in all these courses we build in projects.
One of the challenges here is that sometimes students overly focus on the result of the project as opposed to the process. They say: “I just want the end product to be wonderful, and I don’t care if the process of my getting there is a terrible mess.” But that is not a very good approach to doing projects, so in such cases we tell them: «OK, we’re going to stop right now. Let’s see how you’re working here, how you’re moving toward your goal. How is your team working? Is everyone doing their job? What could you be doing better? What did you decide not to do? Was that an explicit decision or did it just somehow come about?» So, we have students analyze their each step and see their own mistakes and correct them.
Let me give you an example from the Design Nature course. One group of our students (about 4-5 people) focused on designing toys for fourth-graders, which in the US means ten-year old kids.“So how are you going to do that? So when they started to do that, we asked them: “How are you going to do that? What are you going to start with?” And they had all sorts of ideas but we said: “No. What you need to do is you need to go to a local school and interview some fourth-graders. Because otherwise you will design a product not knowing who your end customers are.» And those eighteen-year old students usually think: “Oh, I was ten years old only 8 years ago! That wasn’t that long ago, so I know what ten-year olds do and what they want.” But today’s ten-year olds are different from ten-year olds 8 years ago. So we had these students go to schools and interview those schoolchildren about what toy they would like to have.
And the final assessment, after they had built these toys, was that we had the fourth-graders come to Olin, and we had them evaluate the toys. And the way you do that is very easy: you just put all these toys there, and you find one they’re all playing with. And then you simply count: “80% of the children played with this toy, and no one played with that one.” So it’s not that we expect our students to be sociologists or psychologists, but even things like sociology and psychology are not irrelevant.
It is the idea that if you work in a team you learn how to communicate, including talking to people that are completely different from you, that speak a different language and so on. You also learn ho to give constructive feedback and how to take feedback. And I think that this ability is very useful and it doesn’t come easy to everyone. Perhaps everyone have had situations when they received feedback that, even though it was useful, may have been delivered in a disrespectful or even aggressive form. And that of course is not at all pleasant or productive, so we teach our students to give feedback respectfully and with as little negativity as possible.
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© Olin Сollege
First year Olin students demonstrating a “hopper” in Design Nature
— How much is teaching in Olin College tied to the actual practice of engineering? How many faculty members do you have who also work on actual engineering projects and not just academic research?
I think the vast majority of our faculty have had at least some full-time or part-time non-academic experience. And a lot of them not only have that sort of experience but continue doing engineering projects in the present. Of course, one has to take into account that the faculty in Olin is very small. Which is to be expected, since it’s a small school. Olin College has the total of about 45 full-time faculty members, plus a number of part-time faculty members. And the faculty are not divided into academic departments; it is a faculty of the whole. So the engineers are mixed with the math and the science people and even the arts, humanities and social sciences people.
Another thing I’ll say on that topic is how we assess faculty. As far as the traditional assessment of faculty in higher education goes, usually people talk about three buckets: teaching, research and service. We’ve abandoned that model and replaced it with the following: we want our faculty to be involved in our activities that develop students, as well as to build and sustain the institution and its public image. And this institution development may mean very different things for different faculty members. For some it may be traditional academic research. For others it’s the practice of engineering, for others it’s the practice of education. And the faculty are assessed according to their contribution to those things. So we encourage our faculty doing all kinds of work that has impact outside the institution. I’ll give you an example of a specific Olin faculty member who was a very highly trained physicist. Over their career, that faculty member had got involved in many engineering projects and what they decided to do with their sabbatical leave was actually work in an engineering research and development company because they wanted to have the experience of what it was like to be an engineer as opposed to a physicist. And, after coming back from their sabbatical, that person brought all that new experience into the classroom.
— How does Olin College withstand competition with such serious rivals in Massachusetts? What are the main advantages of the education that one can get at Olin College?
First of all I think that there can never be too many great schools. Secondly, Olin College is a small school. We have only three hundred and sixty undergraduates across all four years. That means that every year about ninety or so students are joining us, so we are not really a competition to schools that are admitting thousands of students. Also, Olin is a very particular type of institution. Our main advantage is the active learning environment, and one of the main factors of such an environment is the expectations of the students. Our students have as much responsibility as the faculty for the positive outcomes and improvements of their education. This is why Olin College is a great place for some students but it can be unsuitable for other, equally bright and capable students, and with good reason. For instance, if you are interested in a school that is not only about engineering, Olin is not for you. If you are interested in a school where there are thousands of students because you would prefer to have your own group of friends and activities and not always be with the same people all the time, Olin isn’t the right place for you either. If you need a school that is deeply steeped in very high level doctoral education and research, Olin wouldn’t be able to satisfy that. So a lot of it is about how well the person fits into the school and its methods. Of course, we are very happy that we get listed with all those big schools; and in some ways we do compete with MIT and Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon and all the other similar institutions. But it would be more correct to say that Olin occupies a certain niche.
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Mimi Onuoha, Olin College’s Inaugural Creative in Reference with engineering students
— How do you select students for Olin College? What is the basis for their enrollment? Can there be a situation when a high school graduate will not be admitted to Olin College, even if they are extremely bright and capable?
Absolutely yes. But the reason, again, is more often that Olin simply doesn’t suit those students. Our selection is a two-step process. The first step is fairly similar to student enrollment in other schools in the United States. Because we only have undergraduate education programs, we’re mostly talking about eighteen and nineteen year olds. So, at this first stage we study their high school records, test scores, letters of recommendation, essays, activities, etc. What we do then is actually assess the students, as we say, “on paper” (but, of course, everything is virtual these days). Then we assign each of them two scores: one is a traditional academic score and the other one is non-academic. The non-academic score is based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and this score takes the student’s dominant type of intelligence into consideration. As a result of this first step, we identify a subset of these applicants that we call ‘candidates’ and that retain their chances to get a place in Olin. Typically every year Olin will get in the vicinity of a thousand applications (so the ratio is very high: over 10 applications per space), and a little over two hundred of them will be identified as candidates.
Then we split those candidates into three groups and invite them to come to Olin over three consecutive weekends. Each week they come to the school for two days, and we actually subsidize their travel. The point of this second stage is that we immerse them in our school and they get to experience the basic principles of our education process. We also immediately put them together into teams with other applicants and have them do team assignments. Those are all kinds of team tasks, design build exercises, group interviews and individual interviews. Only a fraction of that time are we really evaluating them. The majority of that time we are trying to give them a sense of what it is like to go to school here. Only after all that a fraction of those two hundred and some candidates are offered admission to Olin College, and when we want to admit someone it means that not only we are interested in them but they know that they are interested in learning here too. It is not rare for a student to leave of their own accord because they understand that Olin isn’t a suitable school for them. For example, they may say: «I never realized what active learning is, now I see that it’s not my thing. I would like to have some traditional classes to be the majority of my learning experience.» And that’s a great thing because I’d rather students found that out immediately than after they’ve been here for two years. So that means that many bright and accomplished students may not be accepted or may not accept Olin themselves, and that is understandable.
— Are there any particular details about how testing and assessment of students are carried out in Olin College?
While there certainly are courses that have things that you’ll recognize as quizzes or exams or that sort of thing, I’d still say that the dominant assessment modality here is project-based assessment. And the assessment often comes not from the instructors but from actual professionals and industry experts that we bring in specifically for that purpose. Sometimes we’ll engage those experts in the projects themselves but more often they just do the evaluation. A fair amount of projects is also evaluated by the students’ teammates. And we are also trying to integrate self-evaluation, and it’s always fairly thoughtful to see how self-evaluation correlates with external evaluation.
At the same time, students get traditional grades too (the As, Bs, Cs, etc.), and the faculty are relatively skilled at integrating these quantitative and qualitative approaches in a single grade.
Speaking of the atmosphere in Olin, I would say that our students are not competitive with each other. I’d say that if there’s any level of competition at Olin, it’s the students competing with themselves, almost like golf players.
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© Olin Сollege
— What changes that are happening in the society (for instance, the acceleration of technology development, the need to work in teams, etc.) urge you to use that specific approach to engineering education that you use?
First of all I’d like to say that the societal challenges are no longer easily definable as purely technical. The social, economical, political and cultural changes are all intertwined, and from the engineering education standpoint it is very hard to limit it to one discipline. Another thing is, a lot of engineering education in the past focused on simple information transferral from the professor to the student. But today, in the age of technology and Internet, for both you and me today information is overwhelmingly available, and is a very cheap commodity. But synthesized knowledge, information based on experience or just what you’d call wisdom — that’s still pretty rare. This is why I think that engineering education has to move away from problem-solving to problem identification and problem-framing. Yes, you need some skills to solve particular problems but I think that a lot of engineering education in the past used to focus on how to solve some particular type of problem without much thought about where that problem comes from. And if you want to think about it a little more from a philosophical standpoint, I think that engineering education is overfocused on feasibility, and not desirability or sustainability. But at the same time we can’t forget about the technical side either: for instance, when we’re boarding an airplane, we all want to know that it’s going to fly in the right direction. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t have get any technical knowledge, it’s just that the structure of education today is a little more complex than it was in the past.
— What kind of people are modern-day engineers, in your understanding? What qualities do they possess, what kind of thinking do they need to have? What do you think is the difference between an engineer, say, 20 years ago and an engineer of today?
One of the biggest challenges of education today is: we have no idea what we’re preparing people for. But anyway, I’m going to start with the similarities between engineers in the past and engineers of today. Engineering has always been about creating something new based on existing knowledge. At the same time, engineering has also always been associated with problem-solving, but more than that it’s always been a system of constraints, sometimes competing constraints, like time, money, safety, desirability, etc. And most challenging is that there is always a lack of perfect knowledge. But for engineers the idea of coming up with an elegant, perfect solution five years too late it is a bad outcome, because you need it now and not in some hypothetical future.
Now, what I think is different about modern engineering is that in the past there was an expectation that an engineer was pretty much a technical expert with a very narrow expertise. And we still need those kind of experts but, if you think about it, actually only a very small fraction of engineers need to have a very narrow expertise. Think of it like medicine: yes, society needs a certain number of specialists who know how to do particular rare and complex types of surgery. But at the same time it needs many more general practitioners: doctors who are knowledgeable about medicine in general, but also about social interactions, family dynamics, etc. Engineering is not much different from that. I think that these days engineers surely need to have some level of technical expertise, but mainly they have to have system knowledge more than anything else. They need to understand the interactions, and not only in the engineering systems but in the systems of culture and society.
Personally, I had a 20th century education that gave us a lot of great technical achievements. But back then engineering challenges were usually focused on some specific technology, like propulsion, energy, electronics, large civil projects, etc. In the past, the disciplinary knowledge was emphasized, but now all the challenges that we have are about systems and interconnections. Take the Internet of Things, for example. This incredible connectivity we have now – some people call it the 4th industrial revolution.
And there is another important aspect. As human beings, we evolve very slowly, but there are certainly generational characteristics. And I’d say that the new generation are particularly focused on impact and relevancy and the immediacy of that relevancy. A lot of engineering education in the past was just-in-case. Our professors would tell us: “Learn this, do this, because someday in the future you might see the relevance of this”. This generation does not respond to that as a motivation. It has to be in the here and now.
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© Olin Сollege
Students with Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Laboratory for Adaptation, Inclusion and Robotics (LAIR) and the robotic fish.
— Most probably, in order to train good engineers today, faculty members also need to work a lot on improving their own abilities, skills and knowledge. They will also have to be able to change, revise and modify their curricula and their approaches to teaching. Does something like this happen in Olin College and did you personally and your approach to working with students change in any way over your career? What kind of requirements does Olin College have to the faculty members in general?
Speaking of my own personal experience, I think I had a very traditional engineering education: I graduated from Columbia University in the 1970s. It was very traditional education, a very math and science-heavy curriculum. Then I worked for about 3 years in the industry before going to academia. As you might expect, when somebody winds up as a professor, they were probably a good student and had good grades. I was one of those people, too. But after I graduated psychologically I never felt I knew enough or had the skill to do anything as an engineer immediately. I had to develop the practical skills when I went to work, because my education was not serving that purpose. Then I took up teaching. I was at Tufts University in Massachusetts for 27 years before I came to Olin. Both there and in Olin College I always tried to bring some reality and application into the classroom. Students are always asking themselves questions like: “What am I learning? Why is it useful?” And these are very fair questions, and we need to answer them.
Another problem is connected with textbooks. Textbooks are wonderful things: they’re laid out in a particular way, and they make things crystal clear. But that is also a disadvantage. You read one of these textbooks and you think to yourself: “Oh my gosh! This book makes any engineering project look so easy, like a piece of cake.» So textbooks, in a way, are like seeing a beautiful baked cake without ever seeing the ingredients and how it was baked. You never get to see the terrible mess in the kitchen. They never tell you how many eggs they dropped on the floor and how many cakes they burned before they achieved this beautiful result. You will find none of that in textbooks.
As for our selection of faculty, most of our faculty members are self-selected. People come to Olin because want to be education change agents. And where engineering education is concerned, we want people who are not satisfied with the status quo, who want to see change and who want to be the creators of change. They have to be risk-takers. Besides, nearly all our faculty members have very advanced degrees from excellent institutions in the US, and some international institutions, which means that they have very deep research training.
We spend a lot of time on faculty development, and on improving faculty interaction. For example, team teaching is very important at Olin. And that does not just mean that two professors split the course and each of them teaches half the time. No, team teaching means that professors plan a course together, execute the course together, are in the classroom together, they almost play off each other. Also, a lot of our project-based learning is in a studio environment, as opposed to a classroom environment. Such an environment helps teachers to interact with students actively, move around, help them do their projects. To a certain extent, we also involve faculty in courses that are not their specialty. For example, we have an entrepreneurship course that involves an anthropologist and a biologist. You’d ask: what do they have to do with entrepreneurship? But actually they provide different aspects because science and social science turn out to be relevant in entrepreneurship.
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— How would you describe the role of a professor or lecturer in Olin College?
The principal role, I’d say, is that of a learning facilitator. But other functions include system knowledge integration, trying to teach and enhance the students’ skills and also being an assessor and a technical expert. There is a popular misconception about engineering education: some people think that an engineer’s first source of knowledge is a stack of books on their shelf or the Internet search. And those things are helpful indeed but what’s probably more important is to find someone who knows something about what you’re going to be doing. Because they will help you to navigate the information that’s at your disposal. I mean, when I don’t know something, I’m not embarrassed to open Wikipedia and see what it has to say, because it’s great for what you don’t know. But before I go deeper than that I need someone to help me navigate. Let’s say I did a web search of some question and got five million hits on that. What am I going to do with those endless search results? But it’s natural: if you can’t find an answer to a certain question, you would normally look for a person who will share their experience and say: «You know, I had to deal with the same problem two years ago, it was just like this, and this is where I went.” So we want our faculty to be that person for the students.
— Do Olin College students become good engineers?
I really hope they do, because I’d be in trouble if they didn’t (laughs). Seriously though, our students do well in terms of both employment and acceptance into graduate education. As far as employment goes, a large fraction of our students go to the high-tech sector, by which I mean companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. Olin is located in the North-East of the USA, but 50% of our alumni live in California or the state of Washington on the West Coast, in those high-tech areas. And then a large fraction of them are in the Boston – New York corridor. Quite a lot of them get involved in entrepreneurial environments and launch startups. But, to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of students who try to become entrepreneurs right after school, I’m a bigger fan of somebody going into a large or medium-size organization to gain some experience first.
Around 40% of our students will go to some post-baccalaureate education within 5 years of graduating. Some will do that right out of school, and some will work for a while and come back.
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Professor of Design and Mechanical Engineering Ben Linder working with Olin students in User Oriented Collaborative Design.
— And finally: what would you advise to students who haven’t yet chosen a particular profession but who are already studying engineering?
It’s hard to give a general answer that would fit everybody, but if they’re already studying engineering, here’s what I’d tell them: great, continue doing just that. In my opinion, more people should get undergraduate education that’s built around engineering, and it’s totally fine even if their intent is not to become engineers. What I would tell these students is: have an engineering core but pursue a broader program, because my subjective opinion is that this is the best form of education for the 21st century. The system of undergraduate higher education in the US has become much too divided: people either have a full focus on studying engineering or they don’t study it at all. In the US at the moment only about 5% of undergraduate degrees are in engineering, which isn’t very good for the society, in my opinion. We have a small fraction of the population that’s overly focused on technology and a large fraction of the population that is basically ignorant of technology. But a lot of the challenges that we have in front of us have to deal with technology, so an educated citizen in the 21st century needs to have some basis in technology because it is affecting you and me every day whether you like it or not.