My readers know the problem I have with the results of an Engineering education that I have seen come across the quarterdeck - the people who built Olin from the ground up have seen it too.
At its tiny campus in Needham, Mass., outside Boston, Olin is trying to design a new kind of engineer. Most engineering schools stress subjects like differential calculus and physics, and their graduates tend to end up narrowly focused and likely to fit the stereotype of a socially awkward clock-puncher. Richard K. Miller, the president of the school, likes to share a professional joke: “How can you tell an extroverted engineer? He’s the one who looks at your shoes when he talks to you.” Olin came into being, Miller told me last spring in his office on campus, to make engineers “comfortable as citizens and not just calculating machines.” Olin is stressing creativity, teamwork and entrepreneurship — and, in no small part, courage. “I don’t see how you can make a positive difference in the world,” he emphasized, “if you’re not motivated to take a tough stand and do the right thing.”As the father of a mathematically inclined daughter, I also like the fact that 40% of the school's students are female.
Lawrence W. Milas, the president of the foundation, said he had grown frustrated with a process that helped schools but didn’t change engineering education, which he says he thought was in a rut. He wondered whether it might be a good idea to fold the foundation and devote its assets to the creation of a new college.
A conversation with an executive of the National Science Foundation, Joseph Bordogna, persuaded Milas that his idea was sound. As a major, engineering was slipping in popularity. And the schools and their graduates were suffering from many of the ills of higher education generally. More and more, the schools were demanding specialized courses of study instead of an interdisciplinary approach. Bordogna explained how the National Science Foundation had been lending support to schools that were trying to adopt reforms and foster an undergraduate experience that focused on learning through inquiry and discovery. Yet Milas understood that these programs were competing with a strong institutional inertia. Engineering schools had structured themselves, largely for the convenience of faculty, around a comfortable way of teaching but not the best methods of learning. There was too much note-taking in the classroom and not enough hands-on learning. Institutions stressed research over undergraduate teaching, because that’s where the recognition and grant money come from.
The Bordogna meeting got Milas thinking. “That’s when the light went on,” Milas recalled. “We can start with a blank slate.” He went back to the Olin Foundation and started to push. He recalled that the other members of his small board had reservations, but Milas was certain. “I was a little bit of a terrier on this,” he said. “We went for it.” Eventually, the F. W. Olin Foundation agreed to give more than $400 million to create a whole new school.
This is what we need in the Fleet.
The problem-based process is good preparation for the real world, said another student, Meenakshi Vembusubramanian. “You’re not going to go into a job and get a thermodynamics problem set,” she said. “You’re going to have a problem that’s badly defined.”Worth looking at.
The result is a school with no academic departments or tenure, and one that emphasizes entrepreneurship and humanities as well as technical education. Its method of instruction has more in common with a liberal arts college, where the focus is on learning how to learn, than with a standard engineering curriculum. “How can you possibly provide everything they need in their knapsack of education to sustain them in their 40-year career?” Miller asked. “I think those days are over. Learning the skill of how to learn is more important than trying to fill every possible cup of knowledge in every possible discipline.