Rethinking Engineering Education: The Olin College of Engineering Story

The National Academy of Engineering details four 21st Century Grand Challenges: global security, health, sustainability, and the joy of living. In all levels of education and academic disciplines, the educational implications require preparing students early in their programs for integrative systems thinking across academic disciplines, political boundaries, and time zones.

This means assessing and reinventing what we currently do. In his white paper, “From the Ground Up: Rethinking Engineering Education for the 21st Century,” Olin College of Engineering President and Brock Laureate, Dr. Rick Miller, discusses many of the fundamental issues encountered in this reinvention process and how Olin has adapted to these Grand Challenges. The following blog is a precis of that white paper, and we think the implications are far reaching to all educational institutions. Miller explains what sets Olin apart, some of the challenges they have encountered, and what the college hopes to achieve in its pursuit of a new model of innovative education.

Founding Principles

In 1997, the F.W. Olin Foundation established Olin College for the specific purpose of inventing a new paradigm for engineering education that prepares students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions, and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world. Olin’s founding faculty members knew that creating an educational model that would produce transformative innovation would require more than a minor re-working of the existing undergraduate engineering education curricula. As such, before Olin ever opened its doors, they spent two years rethinking the roles and responsibilities of 21st Century engineers, the way undergraduate engineers were educated, and what consequent adjustments they needed to make. From this sandbox of ideas and exploration, some vital foundational principles emerged that would anchor Olin’s mission in the coming years.

First, Olin committed the entire college to a culture of innovation from the ground up, and to purposely hold nothing sacred that could interfere with the institution’s ability to find “continuous improvement and innovation in the educational process.” This commitment is reflected in the fact that nearly everything at Olin has an expiration date, including the curriculum. Even faculty members at Olin do not hold tenure because of this principle. According to Miller, “the intent here is to anticipate the need for periodic re-invention and continued change and innovation in the future.”

Defining Characteristics

Founded on this commitment to innovation in teaching and learning, the new model of engineering education Olin has created places a priority on learning in fields beyond STEM areas and technology. The college creates multiple opportunities for cross-disciplinary studies in arts and business and humanities with partnerships with neighboring institutions, such as Wellesley College, Babson College, and Brandeis University.

Additionally, Olin re-balanced emphasis on the design process in comparison with the applied sciences, with approximately 25% of student hours devoted to design subjects – a figure much higher than that traditionally found in schools of engineering. And furthermore, their student experience is carefully crafted to foster and enhance high levels of student engagement and independent learning, traits that have been specifically targeted as advantageous to the education of innovative engineers.

This broadening of the traditional engineering curriculum expands the educational lens of developing engineers beyond a narrow focus on feasibility (which is the central focus in most engineering curriculum) to a view that also includes viability and desirability in the creation of new ideas (perspectives that are fostered through study in business, the arts, and humanities). According to Miller, it is the intersection of these three perspectives – feasibility, viability, and desirability – that create the type of large sustainable innovations that re-shape the world as we know it. Consequently, it is the goal of Olin to integrate these diverse perspectives from the beginning of the undergraduate experience. Olin College has been described as a “liberal arts college in which every student earns an engineering degree.”

Future Challenges

Now in its sixteenth year, graduates of Olin College have distinguished themselves among their peers and the school’s innovative approach to re-shaping traditional engineering education has become a model for engineering schools around the country. With Olin’s learning model of increasing interest at many other engineering schools, scalability to larger institutions is a topic of concern for Olin’s leadership, and one that is being explored through partnerships with other institutions.

The college is also constantly evaluating their balance of focus on design topics on the one hand and advanced theory on the other, with careful attention on the preparedness and success of their graduates. And finally, with an eye to the future, Miller cites the school’s successes as their main potential challenge moving forward. He notes that the creation of something special can often lead to the desire to protect it from change, while the learning model best suited for today is unlikely to be optimal 10 or 20 years from now.   This awareness both challenges and inspires the college’s evolution as it continues to focus on preparing engineering innovators.

Olin has clearly made significant adjustments to meet the needs of 21st Century engineers. In our respective disciplines and different educational levels, what can we learn from them? How can we adjust our existing educational models to meet the needs of our students in a rapidly changing society?

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