Olin College President Rick Miller on Reengineering Engineering

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You have to think differently about your identity and about your role in the university in order for this to work. You have to give up this mental notion that as a professor, I stand in front of a class, I have all the answers, they sit in rows and they take notes—that’s gone. Now kids are in tables—groups of five or six of them at a time. They come to the table for consultation and your job is basically as a project manager and a consultant.

That’s not easy for some PhDs to do. So, what happens during that week in the summer, is they come with this project. We take them, disassemble them from their group, and reassign them to teams with people from other parts of the world. They take their ideas to that group, and that group has a fixed time constraint in which they have to engineer a plan for achieving this goal. There’s a lot of role-playing that goes on. Some of them will play the role of students. Others will play the role of faculty members and some of them for the very first time, they feel what it feels like to be in a classroom with them teaching.

On how he knows it’s working:

RM: By the way, how do you know if the students in your class are intrinsically motivated? I claim it’s very easy. You just have to listen for the questions they ask. If the students ask you, “Will this be on the test?” This is not intrinsic motivation. They’re motivated extrinsically by getting a grade. On the other hand, if the students ask you, “I tried over the weekend to make this airplane fly but it failed twice, can you help me figure out how to apply these principles to fix this problem?” That’s intrinsically motivated. They will learn that whether they reviewed it or not.

On what’s at stake:

RM: There are two layers of this. From the national point of view, if we don’t do something to make engineering education more successful in the U.S., America’s economy will change. There’s a national agenda that’s urgent.

But there are bigger issues, too. In 2050, global population is going to spike up to nine billion. There isn’t a single aspect of life on the planet that isn’t going to be affected by this. This means that we’re all family members now. Technology is essentially an amplifier on human actions. As technology increases in power from one generation to the next, it enables a smaller and smaller number of people to affect the lives of a larger and larger group of other people. This could be through nuclear weapons. It could be through cell phones. It could be through the Internet. So, any problems that erupt are now global problems.

Now we have Ebola, right? So global health issues are huge. Global securities issues are huge. If we don’t learn how to get along with our neighbors, the human race is going to annihilate itself in another generation. And of course not everything that we’re facing is about some threat to existence. There is also this expectation that every generation of our youth is going to have a lifestyle that is at least as good as our parents.

But there is a conflict here—the planet earth is a fixed size, but the population is not, it’s getting bigger. At some point the feasibility of having every generation have a better life than the previous one is going to come in to conflict. I have rarely talked to a high school kid who isn’t concerned about these issues. Now, those problems are not easily solvable. They’re all coupled, they’re connected, they’re interdisciplinary. They transcend time zones. They transcend political boundaries.

To attack problems like that, it takes a completely different kind of mindset—a different kind of education. Young people are like wet cement. Thinking in a systems way, thinking across disciplines and across political boundaries, is something that will be easier to teach if we start with undergraduates and we do this across the globe. If the whole population doesn’t get it, they’re not going to behave differently. So, there is a global urgency to producing the next generation of leaders in every country that has an engineering understanding with systems, and that is able to cooperate with people across the globe. We need to have an engineering way of looking at these problems that puts the physics of the earth first.

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