Olin College is Shaking Up Engineering Education

"If it turns out that STEM is just a four-letter word, then whither is the state of engineering education?

Among the possible alternatives is a ‘foundational’ approach that is tightly focused on identifying the problem and finding a solution. Relatively small undergraduate programs are taking the first steps, but educators must now find ways to scale that approach.

For now, the focus is on ‘learning how to learn and [then] learning context,’ said Vincent Manno, a professor and provost of Olin College, a private undergraduate engineering school located in the Boston suburbs. Highly regarded Olin may have found the formula for educating the next generation of engineers who must solve problems while contemplating the intended and unintended consequences of what they create." …


Interesting, wonder how the approach and student experience compares to similar schools, like Harvey Mudd or Cooper Union?

As a newly established school, Olin was able to start from basic principles in developing its philosophy of education. As would be expected, it studied existing schools and programs. So specific to Harvey Mudd, the first Dean of Faculty at Olin was the former Chair of the Harvey Mudd Math department who presumably used his experiences from Mudd to guide the development of the Olin program. And, the Olin senior capstone program in engineering (SCOPE), their culminating senior project, was directly adopted from the Harvey Mudd Engineering Clinic program at the Dean’s suggestion.

I think what Olin has put together is definitely unique. They borrowed, adapted, and created. Their student body is tiny! Very exciting, hands-on place for the right kid. It’s great to have another alternative out there for engineering students.

It’s tiny, but is effectively on Babson’s campus so it is not quite as isolated as the numbers might suggest.

It would never happen, but there are the right ingredients for creating a great new university in Wellesley, MA (Wellesley University?) by combining Wellesley College’s strength in liberal arts, the strength of Babson in business, and the strength of Olin in engineering.

When WPI was developing their project based program almost fifty years ago, the president visited Harvey Mudd and was also very impressed with their unique program. He noted their approach to interdisciplinary learning in the STEM world… None of these colleges are copies of the other. Each is a prototype which should keep evolving. We have moved beyond classroom lectures into a process where creativity is more directly applied.

WPI started developing their project based/interdisciplinary approach to STEM education back in 1968 when I was a student there. They even have an on-going summer institute to teach project education to faculty at other colleges and universities and have conducted extensive surveys reguarding their impact on thousanda of students They recognized that the science of learning is an on-going process and should not stagnate into a new standardized system copied be every other educational institution… They are currently trying to highlight how project elements can be integrated into the classroom experience. See https://www.wpi.edu/.

This National Academy of Engineering officially recoginzed these efoorts in 2016 and awarded the Gordon Prize to four WPI faculty menbers. In 2019, three Georgia Tech faculty also receive this prize for “problem-driven engineering education.” Many call such vehicles “projects.” This vehicle is not restricted to the STEM fields. In fact, project students are confronted by the interdisciplinary nature of problem solutions. These students must listen to each other to design a workable solution.

My favorit project format is called the “Interdisciplinary Qualifying Project” as it brings different majors out of their comfort zones as they “learn how to learn.” For this reason, WPI’s very exstensive overseas studies program is NOT a classroom exchange, but centers on actual project solutions, often in very different cultures… we are largely talking STEM majors here! Learning how to learn becomes personal. This is called motivating.

One could argue that these efforts are largely a re-birth of the mid-evil apprentice system with a modification fired by a recognition that the half-life of our modern “state-of-the-art” knowledge is very short, particularly in the STEM fields. (last I heard EE was 2.5 years… keep learning ladies!)

Scaling project education requires very strong corporate involvement. Their research needs to be interfaced with student research. Olin is working very hard at this. WPI has over 50 project centers in over thirty countries.

One of the most unique aspects of Olin is its method for selecting a class for admission. Olin brings in applicants (about twice the size of the class to be admitted) to a “Candidates Weekend”, where they meet with students and faculty. After the weekend, a set of applicants is selected for admission. This gives the current students input into the incoming class.

This would be difficult for any other school to replicate, both because of the expense of transporting the applicants and the size of the school.

According to the article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olin_College Olin used to give full tuition scholarships to all students, but started charging half tuition in 2009 due to financial difficulties. This sounds similar to the Cooper Union story, https://cooper.edu/about/trustees/board-approves-fec-plan . Does Olin have plans to return to a tuition free model in the future?

@hebegebe When the planning of Olin College began it was reported that it would be a part of Babson. The Olin campus was purchased from Babson.

The interface between a more traditional classroom structure (Babson and Wellesley) and the individualized STEM project structure at Olin creates a challenging design problem when students want to cross register at Olin. One does not just sign up for another class in a different subject. I suspect Wellesley students would be more likely to have the STEM foundations needed to interface on Olin projects while Babson plays the management/entrepreneurial role.

The Interdisciplinary Qualifying project structure at WPI may actually be a very useful tool to bring these different student bodies together from Wellesley and Babson to work on project solutions. This effort is full of possibilities, but they do not need to re-invent the wheel. A lot of tested ideas are out there.

The key issue which it appears Olin is focused on here is the corporate/student project interface… a very costly process from both sides of the issue. Who is at the steering wheel? The instructional staff or the cooperating company?

Observation point: WPI also started as the “Free Institute of Industrial Science” Somehow cost structures show up beyond the reach of the best dreams. Many privately funded educational Institutions have experienced these growing pains and traveled down the same road. Here is a project for Babson students to work on!

Thank you Mile Perara!
I can guess what those Olin admissions people are thinking when they have “Candidates Weekend” and it is not SAT/ACT scores or even GPAs. What are they looking for? Too many “chance” discussions on CC try to rationalize the admissions process based on available data. Creativity is a difficult to define gift. One can’t do this with 10,000 plus applicants. MIT had over 20,000 applicants for about 1,200 spaces. Who is really motivated to solve problems in Olin’s educational environment?

Perhaps the applicant selection at Olin can be compared to the audition process to an elite music school like Curtis.

^ I don’t think it’s quite an audition process, in that the applicant is not trying to demonstrate their skill or aptitude in a specific area. From the Olin website, the candidates have two areas that will be evaluated, an individual interview and a group exercise. I think they are considering how the candidate does in group dynamics, communication, etc.