Olin College President Rick Miller on Reengineering Engineering

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There was some crisis that happened that wound up being a big deal. And that is what would have made it possible for kids to remember. So, Olin is deliberately working to inject people back into the narrative of what engineering is about. Here’s an illustration: we have a course called The Stuff of History. It’s team taught by a material scientist and a historian of science. They teach the course through the life story of an ancient scientist. The kids actually repeat the discoveries and the experiments that the scientists went through. In this particular course they use Paul Revere. We all learn that Paul Revere rode horses and had something to do with politics. It turns out that the guy was a metallurgist and he invented all kinds of different alloys and metal.

So, these kids have a course that’s built around the life story of Paul Revere. Rather than having the role of the teacher the omnipotent source of all information—where you’re intended to sit there in rows and take notes—they now see essentially a play going on in front of them while these two guys are debating what really happened. And then there’s this constant interaction with the students, so it’s more like a graduate seminar. These are all things that evolved through the first five or six years of the program.

The program continues to evolve—but at this point we have enough data on student outcomes to be convinced that it’s working. We’ve also noticed that it’s noticed. In fact, in the last four years, more than 1,000 faculty members from more than 300 universities have been here to visit and spend time on our campus, benchmarking what we’re doing.

This got us talking about Olin’s evolution from a standalone experiment to a model for a new type of engineering curriculum, which really kicked into gear around 2009, as the school entered its second decade.

RM: Olin is in a way changing its purpose from a college to a cause. It’s about the national need for change in STEM education. There is a revolution underway in this area. The number of engineering schools nationwide that are right now in the process of major reform of education is huge, and it’s growing all the time. Just this year alone, I’ve been asked to give keynote speeches at Ohio State University, University of California Berkeley, University of Michigan. We’re hosting partnerships with University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Texas at El Paso, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And of course it’s a global effect, too.

Indeed, Miller cited work with universities in Japan, Britain, India, Singapore, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. One of the focal points of these collaborations is a program that Olin started in 2009 called the Summer Institute.

Olin's Summer Institute brings together faculty from around the world to rethink engineering education.

Olin’s Summer Institute brings together faculty from around the world to rethink engineering education.

RM: It takes about 70 faculty members from around the world. They meet for either a one-week or two-week program. It’s self-sustaining financially. About 70 percent of the visitors are international, and it’s about learning to think differently about what education is. What it’s not—and this is very important to get and hard to understand—it’s not about teaching the Olin Way. It’s about teaching you to think differently about your educational environment. It’s about encouraging you to go through your own version of the Olin Partner Year, with your students, in your budgetary constraints, in your region. You will be much happier with that than trying to copy anything that Olin did.

They need to have at least two faculty members, often there are five. There has to be at least somebody who’s senior in the group. They need to have a proposal for what they would like to create on their campus. We need a letter from the dean or from the president of the institution that says, “I’m behind this. This is an institutional priority. We’ll support it for the next ten years.” And then we’ll ask them to come, and this will be the first of a series of relationships with that institution. And provided this all works out after the first year, they go home having changed their identity.

It’s a very intense time. Think of this as boot camp at West Point. Here’s our concept: a good course changes what you know, a great course changes who you are. We have to change who you are. … Next Page »

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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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