Olin College is Shaking Up Engineering Education

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If it turns out that STEM is just a four-letter word, then whither is the state of engineering education?

Among the possible alternatives is a “foundational” approach that is tightly focused on identifying the problem and finding a solution. Relatively small undergraduate programs are taking the first steps, but educators must now find ways to scale that approach.

For now, the focus is on “learning how to learn and [then] learning context,” said Vincent Manno, a professor and provost of Olin College, a private undergraduate engineering school located in the Boston suburbs. Highly regarded Olin may have found the formula for educating the next generation of engineers who must solve problems while contemplating the intended and unintended consequences of what they create.


There’s an insatiable need for engineers – or so we’re told. We took a look at the skills currently at a premium in the electronics industry. We also examined the industry requirements that might guide the creation of science and math education programs to keep the pipeline filled with people who have skills that will serve them and their employers well in the future. We found some surprises.

 


Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering was founded in 1997 on the premise that undergraduate engineering education is fundamentally flawed. “The traditional curriculum is too narrow; it teaches students how to solve problems but not how to find the right problems to solve,” the school’s mission statement declares.

Olin is, by design, much smaller than the nation’s top engineering schools — a student body of only 360. First-year students dive right into engineering courses rather than spending several semesters taking science and math classes that frequently discourage students anxious to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Enrollment is limited for several good reasons — among them, smaller class sizes that promote collaboration among students and more interaction with the engineering faculty. “It’s super-immersive,” Manno emphasized in an interview.

The other differentiator is Olin’s heavy emphasis on engineering ethics, a trend that is gaining traction at larger institutions offering graduate and post-graduate degrees. “We see this as an emerging thread in engineering education,” Manno stressed.

Equally passionate about the immediacy of ethics and context as graduating engineers confront societal issues like AI bias, Olin assistant professor Alison Wood added: “It’s not an add-on to engineering education, it’s integral.” (See related story.)

Students can major in anything they want at Olin College as long as it’s engineering, added Manno. He differentiates Olin from neighbors like MIT this way: “It’s a single-degree program that has some flavors,” including specializations in mechanical engineering with a heavy emphasis on robotics, along with electrical engineering and general engineering.

A well-rounded education
By that, Manno means that undergraduate engineering students get a well-rounded education with access to the nearby campuses of Wellesley and Babson Colleges, forming a kind of virtual university. “It’s general engineering with a thematic tone,” he said.

First-year students hit the ground running. The curriculum is built on focus areas like modeling and simulation of the physical world, product design and development, and, last but not least, arts and humanities. While there is an early emphasis on math and science, Manno said that a first-year math class resembles an architect’s studio.

Olin

Olin College


Olin’s rigorous admissions process is reminiscent of the one used by the new American space agency in the late 1950s to select the first American astronauts. NASA eventually whittled hundreds of test pilot candidates down to seven.

The school receives about 1,000 applications per year for 90 spots. About 225 candidates are invited to the campus for evaluation, including team problem-solving and one-on-one interviews. The engineering faculty is less interested in SAT scores or high school advanced placement courses than a candidate’s ability to work in teams to identify and solve problems.

Emerging disciplines like mechatronics are emphasized early on being that the multidisciplinary branch of engineering combines robotics, electronics, computer science, and networking into a system integration framework that students are bound to encounter in their careers.

Mindful of the influx of foreign students not infrequently buying their way into U.S. engineering schools, Olin maintains a 10% cap on overseas students. While the school strives for gender parity, Manno said that the recruiting pool remains predominantly male.

The provost bristled at the suggestion that Olin is merely a variation on a technical school. Certainly not, he replied in so many words. Rather, students are being trained to enter a demanding profession developing technologies and, eventually, products that will shape humanity.

Hands-on learning
“Learning by doing is a much more powerful approach to engineering education,” said Manno. That and “contextual learning” help graduates get what he refers to as their “nth job.”

Olin College placed third among U.S. undergraduate programs in a recent ranking of engineering schools. Its mechanical engineering degree program, with its heavy emphasis on robotics, ranked fourth in the nation.

The school’s curriculum is driven largely by generational changes in engineering education. According to a March 2018 survey of the current state of engineering education, author Ruth Graham identified the marked shift toward “socially relevant and outward-facing engineering curricula.”

“Such curricula emphasize student choice, multidisciplinary learning, and societal impact, coupled with a breadth of student experience outside the classroom, outside traditional engineering disciplines, and across the world,” Graham wrote in the MIT-sponsored study.

Catching on
That perspective is gaining traction among the nation’s premier engineering schools. “MIT continues to pursue research that addresses current problems while training researchers to think through the implications for tomorrow as research is translated to new technologies and new problems,” noted Krystyn Van Vliet, MIT’s associate provost.

Up the road at Olin, undergraduate students are encouraged to pursue summer internships or take off a semester to gain work experience. Most still graduate in four years. About 40% of graduates join tech startups. Manno said that about the same percentage go on to graduate school after five years. That percentage is decreasing, however, as the job market improves.

Olin’s hands-on approach to engineering education is working on a small scale. As with the technology solutions developed by its undergraduate students, the harder problem, according to the recent engineering education survey, is “figur[ing] out how we can offer this type of quality of education at scale.”

— George Leopold is the former executive editor of EE Times and the author of “Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom” (Purdue University Press, Updated, 2018).

Other articles in this Aspencor special project:

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Engineering Jobs & Engineering Education
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EEs Join the Gig Economy
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STEM: It’s Time to Add an ‘A’
The desire to foster STEM skills risks becoming monomaniacal, to the detriment of liberal arts skills. That’s not what the technology industry needs; it needs STEAM.

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The Gig Economy Guide for EEs
A higher degree used to represent immunity from the gig economy. That’s not so any more.

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Engineering a Sustainable Future
Sustainability is a framework that helps us identify ethical issues and guides us toward equitable and just resolution.

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