Karl Gallagher (selenite) wrote,
Karl Gallagher

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Engineering Education: A New Hope

Engineering Education: A New Hope

The WSJ has a great article today on Olin College of Engineering. This is a from-scratch attempt to develop a new approach to engineering education. I think they're off to a great start. Integrating the theory with hands-on projects should be a much better way to learn than the pure lectures I got. There's also a big emphasis on entrepreneurship and self-initiated projects. And I can't complain about lots of the faculty being from MIT.

This is very exciting for me--I don't usually blow through a 100-page course catalogue for the fun of it. It's not perfect, of course. They're still too new to have much depth in any one subject, and may never grow large enough to have that much. Formal math is being pushed up front, which seems to be driven more by the accreditation agency than actual needs (though they do seem to concentrate on useful math rather than the more esoteric methods). It doesn't have an "engineering communications" class as such but there's a bunch of team projects that probably include that. Hopefully they will touch on some of Tufte's work.

Overall it looks like those students will get a better foundation than I got. I'd strongly recommend it to anyone looking to major in engineering.

Building a Better Engineer

With No Tuition or Tenure, Olin College Aims to Produce Grads for a Global Economy
December 20, 2005; Page B1

NEEDHAM, Mass. -- Olin College is the answer to an extraordinary question: If a foundation offered $460 million to start an undergraduate college of engineering from scratch, what would it be like?

And Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering is like few other schools. It has no academic departments. No tenure. No tuition. And more female students and professors, percentage-wise, than almost any other U.S. engineering school.

Then there are the classes. In an innovative course that integrates math, physics and engineering, freshmen David Gebhart and J.P. Pechan huddle over a cardboard-and-foam model they've built that looks like a seesaw with a wagon wheel rolling along it. The assignment: to design a gizmo controlled by a motor, write equations to describe its motion, simulate it on a computer, and build a working model that can be controlled from their laptop computers.

Prof. Mark Somerville -- a Rhodes scholar who majored in engineering and English as an undergrad and earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- looks over their shoulders and points to a sprawling equation they've written in pencil on butcher paper. "Is this your controlling equation? What's this term?" he asks, pointing to a jumble of Greek letters. They answer. He asks something else, and moves on to another cluster. It's physics and calculus taught by the Socratic method, though the course does include weekly lectures.

"In most engineering schools, it's learn, then do," says Olin's president, Richard Miller. "We turn that around: Do, then learn. It's learning to swim in the deep end."

Olin College was spawned by the F.W. Olin Foundation (F.W. Olin being the founder of a predecessor company of today's Olin Corp). The F.W. Olin Foundation's trustees, having spent decades financing science buildings on college campuses, decided to go out of business rather than recruit a cadre of younger trustees. To the disappointment of fund-raisers at every other engineering school, the trustees decided to start a new college.

"We found out the National Science Foundation was spending a lot of tax money trying to reform engineering education," says Lawrence Milas, the foundation's president. "Although there were some areas of success, it was a very difficult thing for existing institutions to accomplish. Academia moves at a glacial speed."

The college's founding team gathered ideas being tried at other engineering colleges, and added a few of their own, attracting faculty -- despite the no-tenure rule -- by offering the excitement of building a college. Among those consulted was Michael Moody, chairman of the math department at Harvey Mudd College, a 50-year-old undergraduate engineering school in California with some similarities to Olin.

Says Mr. Moody, now dean of the Olin faculty: "In one of my first meetings with the provost, David Kerns, I said, 'Olin is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you.' And he responded, 'Actually, it's much rarer than that.' "

The school, with just under 300 undergraduates, will graduate its first class this coming spring. It has the air of a start-up. David Barrett, who left iRobot Corp. to teach at Olin, says his job often is like building a bridge six inches ahead of an advancing army. When another professor talks about "the way we used to do it," he means "how we did it last year."

To a visitor, the school resembles any other small college. What's different about it is its almost messianic mission: to change the way engineers are educated in the U.S. so that they can help the U.S. compete in a global economy with lots of smart, ambitious engineers in China, India and elsewhere. "If they become another good engineering school, they will have failed," says Woodie Flowers, an MIT professor advising Olin. "The issue is to do it differently enough and to do it in way that will be exportable" to other colleges.

Olin's "founding precepts" rule out tenure and tuition, and admonish the college to avoid becoming "resistant to change." The goal of gender balance came later. Today, 13 of the 32 faculty (or 40%) and 43% of the students are female. Nationally, it's about 20% for students. "It's nice not being a novelty," says senior Mikell Taylor, who turned down MIT for Olin.

Professors occasionally intervene to make sure the women thrive: In forming groups of students, for instance, they rarely put one woman with three men. President Miller says the school's female students have just as impressive SAT scores and grades as the men. He speculates that young women may do better at Candidates' Weekend, an audition of sorts in which applicants are evaluated, in part, for how well they work in teams and communicate.

That emphasis reflects pressure from business to produce engineers who can do more than turn concepts into working prototypes but can work in interdisciplinary teams and focus, more than earlier generations, on conceiving and designing products. It's too soon to tell if Olin is delivering that, but corporate executives say early signs are encouraging.

"They've ended up with an outstanding student body," says Olin fan Wayne Johnson, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s vice president for university relations. "They're exposing them to things that it might take you 10-15 years to learn in a corporation -- the whole aspect of how to develop an approach that works in an organization. It isn't just intuitive; you've got to learn how to do it."

Still, important questions preoccupy Olin observers, both inside and outside the college: Would Olin's techniques work in a bigger school? Is Olin's main advantage its unusual wealth? Or its exceptional students? Can Olin sustain the energy of a start-up as it matures?

"Is it a model that can be scaled nationally in some way?" asks Richard Taber, who oversees the National Academy of Engineering's "Engineer of 2020" project. He's not sure. "Their students are unique. They aren't representative of the population of engineering students, and the resources of the school also are unique."

"I don't think it's an open question whether their students will do well," says Gary Gabriel, director of the National Science Foundation's division of engineering education. "Will they change engineering education? That's the open question."

For Larry Marturano, a Motorola Inc. researcher, there is no question about the abilities of Olin senior Drew Harry, who worked last summer in the company's Schaumburg, Ill., research labs. "He was probably the best intern we ever had," Mr. Marturano says. "He had a unique combination of research maturity coupled with passion coupled with entrepreneurial spirit." So when Mr. Harry asked if Motorola might be interested in being one of 13 companies paying $50,000 to engage a team of Olin seniors working on their senior project, Mr. Marturano bit.

Mr. Harry and a handful of other seniors are trying to design, build and test a service that takes advantage of the fact that modern cellphones know where they are, perhaps a service that will remind a user when he is near a store that he has bookmarked or in range of friends.

As for Messrs. Gebhart and Pechan, as of 10:30 p.m. last Thursday, they were trying to get their seesaw to work. "We have a working simulation, a working circuit, and a program to control the balance beam through our computer," Mr. Gebhart emailed from his laptop (which has red duct tape forming the word "MINE" on the cover). "We are confident, determined, and full of caffeine. It will get done."

The next morning, having pulled an all-nighter, Mr. Gebhart reported: "Basically, all portions of our project work separately, but we are having trouble getting them to all work together." But he and his partner were planning to display it at an all-school exposition today. "So that means we get another shot at having it work," he said.

At 12:52 a.m. Tuesday, Mr. Gebhart emailed: "It works!!!"

Write to David Wessel at david.wessel@wsj.com
Tags: engineering, teaching
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