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 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. There was some crisis that happened that wound up being a big deal. And that is what would have made it possible for kids to remember. So, Olin is deliberately working to inject people back into the narrative of what engineering is about. Here’s an illustration: we have a course called The Stuff of History. It’s team taught by a material scientist and a historian of science. They teach the course through the life story of an ancient scientist. The kids actually repeat the discoveries and the experiments that the scientists went through. In this particular course they use Paul Revere. We all learn that Paul Revere rode horses and had something to do with politics. It turns out that the guy was a metallurgist and he invented all kinds of different alloys and metal.

So, these kids have a course that’s built around the life story of Paul Revere. Rather than having the role of the teacher the omnipotent source of all information—where you’re intended to sit there in rows and take notes—they now see essentially a play going on in front of them while these two guys are debating what really happened. And then there’s this constant interaction with the students, so it’s more like a graduate seminar. These are all things that evolved through the first five or six years of the program.

The program continues to evolve—but at this point we have enough data on student outcomes to be convinced that it’s working. We’ve also noticed that it’s noticed. In fact, in the last four years, more than 1,000 faculty members from more than 300 universities have been here to visit and spend time on our campus, benchmarking what we’re doing.

This got us talking about Olin’s evolution from a standalone experiment to a model for a new type of engineering curriculum, which really kicked into gear around 2009, as the school entered its second decade.

RM: Olin is in a way changing its purpose from a college to a cause. It’s about the national need for change in STEM education. There is a revolution underway in this area. The number of engineering schools nationwide that are right now in the process of major reform of education is huge, and it’s growing all the time. Just this year alone, I’ve been asked to give keynote speeches at Ohio State University, University of California Berkeley, University of Michigan. We’re hosting partnerships with University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Texas at El Paso, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And of course it’s a global effect, too.

Indeed, Miller cited work with universities in Japan, Britain, India, Singapore, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. One of the focal points of these collaborations is a program that Olin started in 2009 called the Summer Institute.

Olin's Summer Institute brings together faculty from around the world to rethink engineering education.

Olin’s Summer Institute brings together faculty from around the world to rethink engineering education.

RM: It takes about 70 faculty members from around the world. They meet for either a one-week or two-week program. It’s self-sustaining financially. About 70 percent of the visitors are international, and it’s about learning to think differently about what education is. What it’s not—and this is very important to get and hard to understand—it’s not about teaching the Olin Way. It’s about teaching you to think differently about your educational environment. It’s about encouraging you to go through your own version of the Olin Partner Year, with your students, in your budgetary constraints, in your region. You will be much happier with that than trying to copy anything that Olin did.

They need to have at least two faculty members, often there are five. There has to be at least somebody who’s senior in the group. They need to have a proposal for what they would like to create on their campus. We need a letter from the dean or from the president of the institution that says, “I’m behind this. This is an institutional priority. We’ll support it for the next ten years.” And then we’ll ask them to come, and this will be the first of a series of relationships with that institution. And provided this all works out after the first year, they go home having changed their identity.

It’s a very intense time. Think of this as boot camp at West Point. Here’s our concept: a good course changes what you know, a great course changes who you are. We have to change who you are. 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.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at [email protected] Follow @bbuderi

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