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

[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,” says Krimmel. They spent the first year helping design the curriculum before embarking on their freshman year with 45 others. So the first graduation ceremony was in 2006.

Morikawa, who is returning this fall after taking a year off with five other students to launch an educational software company called Alight Learning, told me about the User Oriented Collaborative Design course, a sophomore year requirement. His group started a project to help firefighters by interviewing fire department personnel about the sticking points where a new device or technology might make their jobs easier, better, or safer. The students then came up with a bunch of ideas and winnowed them down to nine top candidates, which they took back to firefighters in the form of blue foam mockups and computer screenshots. Morikawa says they got some things wrong and some right, and with the feedback winnowed things down to three ideas the firefighters might really use.

The course had no tests. Instead, the team appeared before a faculty group every two weeks and had eight minutes to present its progress. The final consisted of a similar presentation to a different set of faculty team members hadn’t worked with before.

Morikawa’s team produced something called the Integrated Visual Alarm Network (Ivan). Firefighters told the group that one bottleneck was the crackly station speakers used to relay instructions. An alarm would come in and they would have to listen for a minute to figure out what to do, Morikawa explains. Ivan was designed to augment the existing audio with screens placed in the firehouse and on trucks. “They can get all that information at a glance on the way down to the trucks and inside the trucks as well,” Morikawa says.

That’s just one example of the kind of work Olin students do. For an Expo at the end of each semester students put together a poster session on a class project or personal interest. Some 200-300 guests are invited to review the posters.

Olin College campusEveryone at Olin takes a course called Fundamentals of Business Entrepreneurship, which involves starting a real business, producing something, marketing it, and selling it—reporting along the way to a board of directors comprised of faculty members. And finally, the senior year includes the Senior Capstone Program in Engineering, a year-long project for real clients.

One big aim of all this is to teach students about engineering commercial products. That way, Krimmel says, “The students feel…that, ‘Geez I can go off and build anything,'” he says.

Roughly 25 percent of Olin students go on to graduate school. In four years, the school has also produced four Fulbright scholars. There are seven Olin Googlers, and a like number at Athenahealth. Microsoft has hired four graduates. Other employers of Olin grads include Akamai, Boston Scientific, Analog Devices, DEKA Research, IBM, General Electric, and Genzyme.

A survey of employers of the Class of 2006 asked how Olin students stacked up against graduates of other schools. A majority responded that after one year on the job, Olin grads performed as well as other employees who had 2-5 years of work experience, Guerriero reports.

Not everything has gone as anticipated, of course. Most notably, as I mentioned early on, the free tuition experiment hasn’t worked out. In the face of falling endowment due to the current financial crisis, officials have decided that the school can only cover 50 percent of tuition beginning with the class arriving in August of 2010. Still, as Krimmel points out, with tuition running about $40,000 a year, that is an $80,000 savings over four years. “The dream is to go back to full tuition scholarships,” he says. But he thinks that could take 10 years or longer. [This paragraph originally stated that the changes in tuition coverage began this fall, not in 2010. Other language has been adjusted to reflect changes noted higher in the story.]

Free tuition notwithstanding, Olin’s overall experiment seems to have been extremely successful to date. Next summer the school plans to launch the Center for Transformation of Engineering Education to share its approach more widely through summer workshops for faculty from other engineering schools. The center is still in the planning stages, but Guerriero says it will not be “a cooking school,” where visitors are taught the Olin way. Instead, it will be an interactive workshop where guests can come for a few days of immersion in Olin’s approach, including mock classes, as well as a like period on reforms attendees are trying to implement at their institutions—so that both parties can learn from each other.

No one says Olin’s model is the only way to improve engineering education. Still, I believe the country needs more schools like Olin trying different approaches. Some students will shine in these environments who wouldn’t shine otherwise—and so will some faculty. And if I were hiring engineers at Microsoft, HP, Analog Devices, or wherever, I would want to make sure I drew some talent from this pool, as well as more traditional programs. Excellence, after all, often comes from a diversity of approaches.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at bbuderi@xconomy.com. Follow @bbuderi

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7 responses to “A Visit to Olin College: A Design-Oriented Future of American Engineering”

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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