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,
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
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
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 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
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
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past Prism Articles about Olin College:
PRISM September 2000 - A Tall Order at Olin College
PRISM September 2001 - A First-Class Partnership