Olin College President Rick Miller on Reengineering Engineering

[Corrected, 9/26/14. See below] Every day in business, we hear how technology is disrupting the old guard. Uber disrupts the cab industry. Airbnb disrupts hotels, and so on. And in education, MOOCs (massively open online courses) are supposedly upending education.

But let’s take the case of education. What about non-technology disruptions? What about new ways to organize and teach, so that future engineers, and future leaders, are far better equipped to address and even solve the biggest challenges in the world—in energy, health, security, and more?

Helping to come up with those new strategies is the aim of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Located in Needham, MA, Olin opened its doors in 2002 with an audacious charter: provide an experimental lab for remaking engineering education. The intent was to keep it small—it only has 350 students and doesn’t plan to grow that number—and give everyone free tuition for four years and free housing for the first year. [Location and opening date have been corrected—Eds.]

Some things worked and some things didn’t. The school has long abandoned its free tuition and room policy, but provides each student with a scholarship for half of tuition, which is $43,500 for the current academic year. But the big goal, pointing the way to a new type of engineering education, seems well on track, with the school now a magnet for scores of visitors every year from colleges and universities around the world trying to learn its secret (read on for more on all this).

I profiled Olin five years ago, as it entered its second decade. I recently went back for an update from Rick Miller, the only president the college has ever known. I visited shortly after two college lists came out that had him and Olin riding high. First, Forbes ranked Olin eighth in the nation for highest SAT scores of incoming students. Meanwhile, Princeton Review surveyed 130,000 students for their take on myriad aspects of college life. Olin placed in the top 20 in 15 categories. As Miller told me right off the bat: “We were number three for students studying the most, number 19 for the happiest students in the country. We’re the only college, I believe, that has students on both lists. And the hallmark for Olin is, students will tell you, ‘I’ve never worked this hard in my life and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.’ And that’s the learning culture we’re trying to develop here.”

What follows is an edited version of our conversation, in which Miller shared his views on why engineering matters, how Olin’s approach appeals to kids who probably wouldn’t choose the field otherwise—and why almost 50 percent of Olin’s students are women, compared to a national average of 18 percent. Oh, and by the way, he says, let’s get rid of things like pre-requisite courses in calculus because kids don’t need them to do great things.

On why engineering is so important:

By way of background, Miller said that only 5 percent of bachelor’s degrees issued in the U.S. went to students majoring in any form of engineering. That compares to about 12 percent in Europe, 26 percent in east Asia.

Rick Miller: Now, if America’s going to continue our lifestyle, with technology innovation as being the primary thing that we export, that we lead in, who’s going to do it? Those kids are out there, they’re smart as they’ve ever been, they’re very good at math and science, they’re just not interested in the kind of engineering that we’ve been providing nationally. They’re going into medicine, or they’re going into law, or business, or something else, and as a result the country is not producing people that we need in order to drive the engine for this country. That’s why the Olin Foundation invested in Olin College—redefine engineering with a broader tent, attract into it the people that we’re missing now, provide them the kind of education that produces innovators, not technicians, and then do it in a way pedagogically, that enhances creativity and invention.

On why Olin has so much success attracting women:

RM: In STEM education nationally there is a major crisis. It boils down to three things: we’re not attracting the right people to start with, we’re teaching them the wrong stuff, and then we’re using teaching methods which are known to be largely ineffective. Otherwise, though, we’re doing a great job. So the definition that we’re using, which relates to attracting women, is that we believe an engineer is a person who envisions what has never been and does whatever it takes to make it happen. Now, we find that in general women care more about making a difference in people’s lives than they do about making things, or making money. It turns out that that broader definition of engineering and the type of education that Olin provides resonates with a much larger fraction of women.

So, for example, women are quite concerned about what we call the grand challenges of the 21st century—the issues of sustainability, of global health, of global security, and even the enhancement of … 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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