PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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Engineers for all Seasons

Olin College is a different kind of engineering school. Its mission is to take very bright young people and prepare them for any career.

- By Alvin P. Sanoff   

The nation's newest engineering school now stands on what not long ago was a grassy hillside. The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering–once just an abstraction–has taken concrete form. Four buildings have been constructed, and the first freshman class is in place on the Needham, Massachusetts campus.

With an initial class of 75 students—37 of them women—the campus is still relatively uninhabited. But the students, many of whom rejected offers from such schools as Harvard and MIT to come to Olin, are enjoying their status as pioneers in a grand experiment in engineering education. They rave about their professors, their dorm, and even the food. "Olin has exceeded my expectations," says Kathleen King. She is one of 29 Olin Partners—students admitted a year ago to help plan the school and who are now members of Olin's inaugural class.

Olin students live in a dorm that, by college standards, is downright luxurious. Freshman Krystin Stafford describes the facility as "awesome." The dorm is composed of two-person suites, each with its own bath, a small refrigerator, and microwave. That's quite a perk given that Olin students pay neither tuition, nor room costs. Whether the college can continue to absorb room costs remains an open question that will be revisited as the school grows in size, but it will always be tuition free. For now, the total out-of-pocket cost of attending Olin is about $7,500 a year, a figure that includes meals, travel, a computer, and books.

While the amenities and the cost of attendance would make many Ivy Leaguers envious, it is the academics that truly set Olin apart. The F.W. Olin Foundation founded the school with the ambitious goal of changing the way the nation's engineers are educated. Olin College, says faculty member Rob Martello, wants to produce "renaissance engineers."

Olin's faculty has taken a measured approach to achieving its lofty goal. So far, only the first two years of the academic program are in place. And while the Phoenix–a mythological bird that rises from its own ashes–is the school's mascot, the hare–legendary for being "slow and steady"–reflects the pace at which the faculty has proceeded.

Before beginning work on the curriculum, faculty members and administrators visited a number of other engineering schools, including Harvey Mudd College, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and some institutions in Europe. They drew on what they had seen and on their own experiences as faculty members at MIT, Vanderbilt, Harvey Mudd, and the University of Iowa to devise a curriculum built around four basic principles. These principles state that to be leaders Olin students must have:

  • A superb command of engineering fundamentals and specialized knowledge in their field of major
  • A broad perspective regarding the role of engineering in society
  • The creativity to envision new solutions to the world's problems
  • The entrepreneurial skills to bring their visions into reality

Olin President Richard Miller, former dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa, says that in developing the curriculum the faculty embraced the philosophy that Olin will not produce solely engineers. "What we do," he explains, "is take very bright young people and prepare them for any career. Engineering is just the vehicle for getting them there. It is not a destination."

Even though the last two years of the curriculum remain a work in progress, the faculty has agreed on the conceptual underpinnings of the entire four years. They have divided the curriculum into three components: the foundation, which emphasizes mastering and applying fundamentals in substantial engineering projects; specialization, in which students develop and apply in-depth knowledge in their chosen fields; and realization, in which students bring their education to bear on problems comparable to those faced by professional engineers.

Unlike many engineering schools, where students initially have limited opportunities to apply theory to practice, students at Olin engage in hands-on projects from the beginning. Every semester, students will be involved in projects that are related to their studies. "It is important to have students do real engineering every semester they are here," says Mark Somerville, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and physics.

The Basics

The freshman curriculum centers around a 15-hour-a-week interdisciplinary course that combines the study of math and physics with projects based on the science that students learn. The course has three sections, each with about 25 students. While the academic content of each section is comparable, the projects in each are very different. One section is working on projects involving steam engines, including developing a compressed-air engine for a dragster; another section is creating kinetic sculptures; and a third is devising water-powered machines designed to move the maximum amount of long grain rice up a ramp to a collection bin–this year's design assignment for the annual competition sponsored by the American Society for Mechanical Engineering. "I love the idea that everything is project centered," says freshman Leighton Ige.

Students chose their section based on their interest in the projects. They work on their projects in groups of three or four—part of Olin's effort to instill a sense of teamwork. Working in teams, says Ige, helps students to develop their personal skills. In addition to the foundation course in math and physics, freshman take interdisciplinary courses in the arts, humanities, and social sciences such as "The History of Technology" and "Leonardo da Vinci ."

In their sophomore year, students will take another project-oriented interdisciplinary course in the sciences and–in keeping with Olin's entrepreneurial thrust–a basic course in business. But some students are not waiting to jump into the entrepreneurial pond. Ige is working with a start-up company to develop technology to help airlines more easily detect explosives and narcotics in suitcases.

At the end of each year, students will take part in a week-long assessment that includes written and oral exams and team exercises to determine whether they have attained the learning objectives established by the faculty. The school feels that by defining specific goals, but not the means by which those goals are achieved, the faculty will have greater flexibility in designing courses.

In addition to their academic work, Olin students are encouraged to engage in what the school calls "passionate pursuits," for which they receive non-degree credits. President Miller says that students generally arrive at engineering schools with a more balanced set of interests than they are given credit for. But he adds that those interests can be of stamped out by the traditional engineering curriculum. "We want to encourage students not to give up their passions, which can feed their ability to persuade and excite others." Many first-year students plan to pursue such passions as playing jazz violin, studying architecture, and planting a garden on the campus. "I'm not just hard core into engineering," explains Etosha Cave, whose interests range from music to business. "At Olin," she says, "you can have your cake and eat it, too."

In recruiting students, Olin looks for young people who not only excel academically—the middle 50 percent of this year's class had SAT scores between 1440 and 1530—but also have demonstrated a passion, whether it be for community service, the arts, business, or some other activity. There is so much interest in Olin among talented high school students that admissions officials think that to fill next year's freshman class of 75, they will need to accept only 90 to 100 students from a pool that they anticipate will total between 600 and 800.

Molding the minds of Olin's student body are 23 faculty members. They have signed on to teach at an institution that does not offer tenure and lacks academic departments. They are academic nonconformists who welcome ongoing student feedback even to the point of making midcourse corrections in their teaching in a response to complaints. A physics professor, for example, changed the way she taught when students told her that they needed more examples to understand the subject matter better. Students tell of another professor who cared so much about them that he came into the dorm in the evening to assist homework with math. "We see our professors as people who just want to do a good job and help us," says Kathleen King.

President Miller promises that faculty adaptability is a permanent part of the Olin landscape. The college, he says, is committed to "continuous improvement." That means an ongoing willingness to assess what works and what does not and to change accordingly. Moreover, says Miller, faculty and administrators will be evaluated based not only on "what they achieve but on how they achieve it." In-depth interviews with those with whom faculty and administrators work, including secretaries and students will be part of the process.

Miller vows that even after Olin is firmly established and has graduated its first class, the college will not backslide and become a traditional engineering school. Says Miller, "We need to be as bold five years from now as we were on the first day."


Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer based in suburban Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at

Past Prism Articles about Olin College:

PRISM September 2000 - A Tall Order at Olin College

PRISM September 2001 - A First-Class Partnership