Just tonight I came across an article in the most recent issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine, talking about Olin College. It is located in Massachussets,
near Boston. (an online version of the article is linked above, as is the college homepage)
I was interested in this school's new approach to engineering education, primarily because I am a recent engineering graduate. For those who may not
be aware, the way most engineering programs work today is to load the student up with tons of scientific and mathematical theory in the first few
years, and then do some design at the end of the degree. (for me, I had a single full-year design course, plus a few other labs that weren't really
adequate for teaching design)
From the article:
The professors showed the groups a commercial unit and referred them to relevant patents and other technical documentation in a step-by-step
guided design. The faculty's plan was to watch carefully as the groups progressed and discover where and why they failed. "The problem is, they
didn't fail," Miller says. "They got it to work. This wasn't the highest-quality fabrication in the world; it was a very crude-looking circuit
board with a lot of transistors. But it worked. And we said, 'Aha! There's something to this. You don't need to have prerequisites.' "
Even more revealing, he adds, was the effect the exercise had on the students. "They now wanted to know what a transistor is—badly. They now had a
sincere, deep, personal motivation to learn electromagnetic theory and circuit design. These kids will never forget the experience they had in that
The design project was a pulse oximeter; measures pulse & oxygen levels of a hospital patient by clipping onto an extremity, like a finger or toe. I
found it interesting that not only were the students able to succeed at this rather challenging project, but that they were then really excited to
learn the theory behind it.
At my school, most of the students didn't give a pile of bovine feces how anything worked or cared what the theory behind anything was, which
probably hurt their learning. (I'm a lover of learning and knowledge, so I didn't have that problem) Then, when we got to our fourth year design
project, most of us (me included, this time) felt totally overwhelmed at the magnitude of what we were doing, as most of us had not done any serious
design during our degrees. Most of the projects, including mine, turned out to be pretty crappy as a result, though a few were still excellent.
The college was founded by the F.W. Olin Foundation, a private philanthropic group, that donated over
, a group founded by Franklin Olin, who founded the Olin Corporation, one of the Fortune 1000 companies. The college has a
student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1. (at my school, it was supposedly something like 17:1, though I suspect it was really much higher, since the average
class size was 50-150) Every
student who is admitted gets a four-year full-tuition scholarship. (room/board/books comes out of the
student's pocket) Consequently, it's hard to get in, and there are only 286 students in the whole school. Most of the students live on campus, and
as a result of this and the small class sizes, everybody knows everybody else. I'm not too familiar with American engineering accreditation, but the
website says they have "Achieved candidacy with NEAS&C; Working toward full accreditation review by NEAS&C and ABET as soon as eligible."
Personally, I think this is a really great way of running a school. Because of the strict enrollment requirements, only the really serious and smart
students get in. (at my school, any dolt who had honours in high school could get in) The class sizes are small, making learning easier, as
instructors can develop relationships with the students and teach more towards individuals, rather than to some giant lecture hall with no
interaction. The fully subsidized tuition for all students means that even financially disadvantaged students can get in, as long as they have the
academic requirements. The combination of theory and design is a good one, since a successful engineer requires mastery of both to be successful in
I'm not really sure why I posted about this, just that when I read about this school, I thought it was so cool, I had to mention it. I wish my
school had been run this way; while I love engineering and science, I hated the way that things were run there. If I had the cash to move and live
there, and they would take me, maybe I'd do a second degree in a different type of engineering than I took... that would be interesting.