Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Olin College Close-Up: Richard Miller Taking Engineering to Next Level

“Engineering is not a body of knowledge.  Engineering is a process,” declares RichardMiller, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering’s spirited president, succinctly summarizing the college’s  raison d’être.

If this sounds different from the objective of your engineering school, that’s because it is.  Founded by a board of directors who felt that today’s engineering education needed to be electric-shocked into the 21st century, Olin recruited Richard Miller to kick-start a new teaching program—an experiment, really— based on the oldest of philosophies (Confucius himself gets the credit): “Tell me, and I’ll forget; show me, and I may remember; involve me, and I’ll understand.”  
And the experiment is working.  Students are turning down offers from MIT, Stanford, and Harvard for the privilege of being one of the 50 students accepted out of the roughly 500 students who apply each year.  Here, students pay a maximum of $38,000 in tuition for a full four years of education, develop a patent by the age of 19, have a business (with investors) set up by graduation,  as well as a job offer with a starting salary $25,000 above other engineering graduates.  What’s more, they have a gender neutral student body—nearly unheard of in today’s engineering classes—and all this is accomplished with a non-tenured faculty and zero academic departments.
How does Olin do it?  By using a design-based curriculum (which includes taking art, music, business, and humanitarian courses at nearby Babson and Wellesley Colleges), Olin leaves behind the “books-first-hardware-later” mindset of today’s most elite schools for a more hands-on approach. 
It began with an unlikely undertaking.  After meeting with his faculty to discuss what they remembered about their experiences in college, Miller found a common theme: most of them remembered nothing significant in their early freshman and sophomore science and mathematics classes, but all of them remembered—most in great detail—their senior projects, in which they actually had to create something.  This got Miller thinking:  why not have students complete projects first?
So the first assignment for the just-out-high-school students at Olin?  Create a working pulse oximeter in five weeks.  Resources?  Only the library and a patent drawing.
The faculty, expecting the students to come complaining that they didn’t understand the physics behind the making of the machine, were shocked to find an ugly, grey wire thing show up in their classroom five weeks later:  it was a pulse oximeter (sort of)—but, more important, it worked!  They retrieved a pulse oximeter from a hospital, and the readings between the two machines were in sync.  The students had done it—all without one math or science or physics prerequisite.
The epiphany that accompanied this accomplishment was game-changing: “Uniformly, across education, we underestimate what students can do,” says Miller.  And Miller was determined that his school would not repeat the mistakes of others.
Now, Olin is on the forefront of engineering education, creating some of the most in-demand graduates in the nation.  With its design-centered curriculum, students are expected to complete 20 projects in four years.  “They don’t just learn about engineering,” Miller states. “They learn to be an engineer.”
Ultimately, Miller wants a new kind of engineer that focuses on people—meeting their needs and solving their problems. “Our hope is that Olin students will be a force for innovation and change no matter where they go or what they do.”  So far, it looks like Olin is doing just that.

No comments:

Follow @PSMJ_Resources