A Visit to Olin College: A Design-Oriented Future of American Engineering

8/11/09Follow @bbuderi

[Updated and corrected, August 11---see below]
Anyone who has spent much time in universities knows that openness, teamwork, and collaboration are widely taught, but not always widely practiced. And when it comes to implementing entirely new models of education, well, let’s just say that institutional barriers, turf wars, bureaucracy, and tradition all too often derail significant change.

Better to start from scratch.

That, anyway, was the watchword of an experiment begun 12 years ago in Wellesley, MA, when the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering was created. Built on 70 acres purchased from Babson College next door, Olin was founded specifically to pioneer a new model of engineering education. It has no academic departments, and no tenure. The curriculum is designed to be retired after seven years. Students focus on real-world projects crafted around a commitment to design, functionality, and usability far more than an understanding of science. And, oh yeah, everyone who’s admitted in gets a full ride on tuition, or at least they did (more on that later). [The last sentence originally said Olin intended to offer students free tuition and room. Olin officials say that while free tuition was planned in perpetuity, the school only intended to offer room for the first class, which it did.]

Olin graduated its first class just four years ago, so the experiment is still an experiment-but one with encouraging early results and exciting long-term possibilities. I went out to Wellesley recently to learn more about Olin first hand from director of business development Ron Guerriero, VP for development J. Thomas Krimmel, and rising junior and entrepreneur Evan Morikawa. Not everything has gone as planned, according to this crew. But the upstart college has already produced a crop of Fulbright scholars and is finding ready jobs for its graduates at Microsoft, Google, Akamai, and a host of other leading companies. It even has a plan for introducing its model to more traditional schools.

Here are some highlights:

—About 300 total students, all undergraduates
—Three degree programs: Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and a broad Engineering degree
— 9-1 student-teacher ratio
— 91 percent of students graduate (40-60 percent appears to be the norm for U.S. colleges, according to the statistics I found)
—42 percent of this year’s graduating class, and 54 percent of the incoming class, are women (the highest in the country for an undergrad engineering program, according to Olin) [An earlier version of this point said that 47 percent of the incoming freshman class were women. Women will be about 47 percent of the entire student population this fall. ]
—17 percent of the study body are alumni of FIRST Robotics, Dean Kamen’s popular student robotics competition

Olin College robotics teamThe overriding concept behind Olin is that to compete successfully in today’s global economy, American engineering students need strong technical skills coupled to a better understanding of business and entrepreneurial thinking and broad cultural experiences offered by the arts and humanities. The engineering coursework is geared at providing loads of experience in creating real-world products—with product teams, timelines, and all the rest.

The college was founded by the Franklin W. Olin Foundation, named for the early-20th-century ammunition magnate, in 1997. After purchasing land from Babson College and creating Olin College, the foundation then dissolved itself.

The first employee—Rick Miller, the only president the school has had—was hired in 1999. Initial faculty came the next year, from places like MIT, Harvard, and Vanderbilt, and the core of the first class arrived in the fall of 2001, roughly 30 of them. They are known as “the partners,” … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Thanks for the thoughtful write up Bob. I’ve been curious to know more about Olin.

    You started out saying that the school has a strong multi-disciplinary approach with an emphasis on design. But I didn’t catch any real exposure to Human Computer Interaction studies, and industrial design in the program. Or maybe you just meant that User Oriented Collaborative Design Course is the Olin solution.

  • http://staging.spectrum.ieee.org/blog/robotics/robotics-software/automaton Mikell Taylor

    Jules,

    I graduated from Olin in 2006. UOCD is just one part of the design track; there is also Design Nature (a freshman class with studies in biomimetic design) and you have to take an additional design “depth” course which can be, for example, Human Factors in Interface Design. You can focus your design work on your particular major. Some students go further, others stick with those minimum requirements, but the “start with finding out what people want” theme permeates the entire curriculum.

    ~Mikell

  • http://www.olin.edu Debbie Chachra

    A minor correction: While we are proud of Olin’s commitment to gender equity in undergraduate engineering, the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College has the highest proportion of female students in the country, at 100%. We are pleased to be number two.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/olin/3593365644/in/set-72157621501457772/ Joe Kendall

    Jules,

    I just graduated from Olin this past May, and I wanted to let you know that Olin is working hard to provide its students with more exposure to industrial designers. Last year, Olin ran two classes where its students worked closely with industrial designers.
    In Product Design and Development, teams of Olin engineering students, Babson business students, and RISD industrial design students worked together to develop products from concept to prototype.
    In Distributed Engineering Design, Olin students joined industrial design students based in Switzerland and Mexico on a project for Volkswagen. Both these classes are other examples of the design “depth” courses that Mikell mentioned.
    Olin students also have access to formal HCI studies at Brandeis and Wellesley.
    While Olin offers these classes to interested students, it also integrates design practices into many of the courses that are not nominally “design” courses. Like Mikell said, the ideas presented in Olin’s design courses “permeate the curriculum.”

    -Joe
    Olin ’09

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