Olin College President Rick Miller on Reengineering Engineering

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the quality of life from one generation to the next. Most people don’t recognize immediately that those are actually engineering challenges. We as a population, as a species, will not make a dent in any of those challenges without engineering. And so we draw them in by motivating them to work on the grand challenges.

Xconomy: What did you have to adjust? What did you learn about the approach?

RM: Probably if there is a major, glaring neon sign blinking in our heads about education today, it’s that we underestimate what kids are capable of doing. And one of the ways that takes place is that we have these pre-conceived notions about prerequisites and about all of this just-in-case science that people need before they can pick up a wrench.

X: Just-in-case science? Does that mean taught just in case they ever need it?

RM: Yes. So here’s how this happened. Olin had this unique opportunity to rethink education for two years before we taught any classes—this is during the construction of the campus. So one of those years, we dedicated to experimentation with students. We called it the Olin Partner year, because the kids that came that year were not taking courses, but they were actually partners with us in experimentation.

We learned two things from this. The first thing [is] you don’t need to have two years of calculus and physics before you can make stuff. Kids are actually capable of learning on their own, particularly when they’re motivated. What an idea.

Secondly, and more importantly, the impact of this experience on the students was absolutely transformational. It was now as if they were two feet taller. The kids basically said, “Yes, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I know now if I have a few kids around me like this, and a couple of old guys to ask questions of once in a while, I can change the world. I can design anything I can imagine.”

Here’s basically what happens. If you sat down in the cockpit of a 747 and you don’t have a pilot’s license, and the challenge is to figure out how to fly this thing and to do it in two days, you probably would get stuck a lot. But what if you had five of you in the room, and what if one of you had had some flight instruction somewhere else, another one had in a played in a flight simulator for a while, some people recognized what a horizon indicator looked like, what the altimeter was. What I’m calling the mean time between failure—the mean time between getting frustrated and stuck, to making progress and then getting frustrated and stuck again—that time distance goes way down if you have a group rather than one person. And kids do this almost intuitively.

Olin College campus

Olin College campus

And we realized if we could make that happen in everything that happens educationally at this school, these kids will teach themselves and you won’t be able to stop them—and when they’re finished they’ll be ready to take on challenges that change the world.

X: What about the things that maybe you started out doing, that you found new ways to do? Were there major transformations?

RM: We changed the curriculum three times in five years, I mean completely changed it. The simplest thing you can do to find out how to improve the education on any college campus in America today, ask the faculty to sit through the courses that they require their students to take. It’s a Yogi Berra thing: it’s amazing what you can see by looking.

So, here’s one of the realizations: if you look at a catalog of courses and you read the one-paragraph description for what we’re going to learn in this class, that is analogous to a recipe for a soufflé in a restaurant. But how the soufflé actually tastes depends on the chef. It depends on how you put those ingredients together and what the interaction is like with the student. So this whole business of separating things into courses and having this one teach the math, and that one teach the physics, and that one teach the engineering, and assuming that the students are watching how the whole forest is going together just doesn’t work.

One of the things that we had in the beginning was called integrated course blocks. Integrated course blocks was intended to fix that. The idea was to take the physics course, the math course, and the engineering course and package them so that the cohorts of students saw each other in all three courses during the day. In fact, they didn’t even have to leave the room. So from 8 to 9, the math teacher would come in, and then from 9 to 10 the physics teacher would come in, and from 10 to 11 the engineering teacher would come in—and it’s the same students at the same time as a cohort.

X: Did you actually try that for a while?

RM: Yeah, for two or three years. It still requires the teachers to go out to lunch with each other every day and coordinate. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. So then we completely changed the courses. So now we have courses that have titles that people don’t normally see in engineering schools. Principles of Engineering is one. Another is called Design Nature. And what happens is that those subjects are inherently integrated. So the subject itself you can’t get through by just learning physics. Physics is embedded in the projects that you do, and every one of those courses is project-oriented. So students actually are formed in teams immediately and the faculty are formed in teams that are teaching them.

One of the [other] things that we discovered, very simple, [is] how do people learn? It turns out people primarily learn from stories—that storytelling is the fundamental skill that all excellent teachers are good at. Furthermore, the stories that work in terms of contributing to education are stories about people. Now, I can get any of those textbooks up there [he points to a bookshelf] on thermodynamics or aeronautics—and defy you to find a story about a person.

The closest you can come is a footnote—[say] you talked about Mach number—and that little footnote says, “Oh, Ernst Mach was an aeronautical engineer that lived in Germany in 18 something or other.” That’s all it says. You can bet there’s a story behind the Mach number. … Next Page »

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