His arms up in the air, Benjamin Linder shakes his hips with the rhythm of a hula dancer. He's trying to show me how a robotic gizmo, built by his students, nimbly climbs glass walls. Linder, who is trim and bespectacled, with dark hair and a perpetual five o'clock shadow, launches into a spiel on gecko anatomy. But then he interrupts himself: "Another team couldn't decide if they wanted to do a leopard or a raccoon, and so they settled on a leopraccoon," he says with a grin, adding. "This machine literally gallops up the wall. Cool, huh?"
Just past 4 p.m. on this crisp fall day, first-year students begin arriving for Linder's Design Nature class. A bunch of them congregates around a tray of brownies that the professor baked. A few others sprawl on a gray couch in the middle of the room. A couple of students execute some swing dance moves nearby.
The place looks like a hybrid of dot-com office and arts classroom. Bright collages with diagrams and equations fill the white walls, and piles of paper, markers, Lego blocks, tools, laptops, and iPods clutter six big wooden tables. After a student with a thick shock of dark curly hair arrives clad in a blue-and-black striped bathrobe--he is the course's teaching assistant--Linder calls out to the crowd that the class is going to begin.
It's just another day at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass. Founded with more than US $460 million from the F.W. Olin Foundation, the school, which will graduate its first class at the end of this month, was conceived as perhaps the most ambitious experiment in engineering education in the past several decades. Olin's aim is to flip over the traditional "theory first, practice later" model and make students plunge into hands-on engineering projects starting on day one. Instead of theory-heavy lectures, segregated disciplines, and individual efforts, Olin champions design exercises, interdisciplinary studies, and teamwork.
And if the curriculum is innovative, the school itself is hardly a traditional place: it doesn't have separate academic departments, professors don't get tenured, and students don't pay tuition--every one of them gets a $130 000 scholarship for the four years of study.
Olin's radically new way of training engineers incorporates changes that many in industry and academia say are long overdue. "The urgency of reform of engineering education has been heightened in the last two or three years as we've slowly begun to recognize that we really are competing on a global playing field," says William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, in Washington, D.C., and a member of a council that advises Olin's president.
Experts like Wulf say that if the United States wants to stay at the forefront of technological innovation, it needs to increase the quality and quantity of its engineering workforce. The problem is that enrollment is stagnant, dropout rates are huge, and women and minorities are still disappointingly underrepresented. "Engineering is fun, engineering is creative," he says, "but we have this kind of boot-camp model of engineering education: if you manage to get through the first two years, then we'll let you do some engineering."
Wulf isn't ready to proclaim Olin a success. "It's an experiment; we'll see what will happen," is all he'll say for the record. But he adds that Olin's faculty is "asking all the right questions, and they have the advantage of starting with a clean slate."
At this month's commencement, the 75 students who entered the school's first class in the fall of 2002 will receive bachelor's degrees in electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and general engineering--the three degree types Olin offers. As the seniors toss their mortarboards in the air and take their next steps in the corporate world, graduate programs, and other organizations, many observers on and off campus will be following their progress. How will Olin's engineers compare with traditional ones? Will other schools follow the Olin way?
To see the Olin experiment firsthand, I made three trips to the school during a nine-month period in 2005 and early 2006, spending time with dozens of professors, administrators, and students, and sitting in on classes and lab sessions. As a frame of reference, I used what I've seen at some of the foremost centers of higher education, such as MIT, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Purdue, and Columbia, to name a few. It hardly prepared me for what I found at Olin. Whatever the outcome of the experiment, one thing is certain: this is an engineering school like no other.