The best engineering school in the United States?


Well, of course there''s MIT and Stanford and Caltech and all the others. But if the criteria is the students'' learning experience''the type of classes they take, the skills they''re taught, their level of happiness''at the top of my list is the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

What? Never heard of Olin?

Olin is a small engineering school in Needham, Mass., just outside Boston. It officially opened just five years ago but its reputation has been growing at a fast pace. I wrote a long article about it (''The Olin Experiment'') in the May 2006 issue of Spectrum and the New York Times Magazine recently ran a nice story on Olin (''Re-engineering Engineering'') in their special college education issue.


What makes Olin special''and what puts it at the top of my ''Engineering Schools I Wished I Had Gone To'' list''is its ''practice first, theory later'' approach. Olin was designed to make students plunge into hands-on engineering projects on day one. ''Instead of theory-heavy lectures, segregated disciplines, and individual efforts,'' I wrote in that article, ''Olin champions design exercises, interdisciplinary studies, and teamwork.''

Experts say a deep reform of engineering education in the United States is long overdue. We need a new type of engineer trained to face today''s challenges, not those of post World War II, when many curricula were created. Could this new engineer be ' the Olin engineer? That''s what I set out to find out when my editors assigned me the story on Olin.


My editor''s initial idea was to send me ''undercover'' to the school, where I would pass myself off as a student ''to get the full experience.'' Alright, that didn''t go as planned. The school is small (304 freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors compared with, for example, MIT''s 4000 undergrads), and I''d be unmasked in about 35 seconds.

But in any event, my three trips to the campus, dozens of interviews, and several hours sitting in classes, labs, and at the cafeteria proved a lot of fun. I even spent a night at Olin''s dorm (with approval of the school, which ran a criminal background check on me, their policy whenever a non-student is staying in the residence hall).

What I found during my reporting, and what I tried to convey in the article, is that Olin is like no other engineering school I''d ever visited. Pretty much everything about it is unique. The installations are brand new, the faculty is young and motivated, the curriculum innovative. Professors don''t have to worry about tenure, students don''t have to worry about tuition. The students I met were bright, ambitious, outspoken, and diverse in their interests and personalities. They all want to lead, succeed, excel. They behave almost like MBA students training to be CEOs except they''re dressed in pajamas programming robots. For outsiders, it can be an overwhelming experience to meet a classroom full of Olin engineers.

They''re ''a pretty happy bunch,'' as Jessica Townsend, a mechanical engineering professor, told me when I visited. That''s not to say the students don''t work hard. Tons of homework, all-nighters finishing projects, and, yes, lectures on differential equations''as I witnessed myself, the Olin engineer has to go through all that just as in good engineering schools.


When I wrote my story, Olin was just graduating its first class. One of the challenges I faced was assessing the school''s level of success. Some experts said the great faculty, students, curriculum, installations wouldn''t mean much if the Olin engineer wasn''t a good engineer. But how do you find out whether they are good? And what''s a ''good engineer'' anyway?

I kind of tried to answer those questions in my article, but again, the school''s first graduates were just receiving their diplomas. The New York Times Magazine article, by science reporter John Schwartz, brought some additional information on those issues.

First, the article reports that Olin received accreditation last December. Second, the Harvard Macy Institute, a program affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, did a case study of Olin, and the article quotes the study''s author, Constance M. Bowe, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, as saying that, ''The issues that the Olin case portrayed were very relevant for the kind of problems we''re trying to encourage people to confront'' in medicine. (The Times doesn''t mention it, but I recall there were some other case studies being prepared by other folks at MIT and other places''I''ll check on that and report back.)

Finally, the Times reports that ''Olin has already garnered an impressive amount of attention in the college guides. A Kaplan/Newsweek ''How to Get Into College'' guide called Olin one of ''the new Ivies.'' The Princeton Review says Olin ''may well be the most dynamic undergraduate institution in the country.'' '' New ivy, uh? Now that''s a compliment.

But what I liked most in the Times article was the mention that Olin, in addition to creativity, teamwork, and entrepreneurship, is stressing ' courage. Yes, courage. ''I don''t see how you can make a positive difference in the world,'' Richard K. Miller, Olin''s president, told Schwartz, ''if you''re not motivated to take a tough stand and do the right thing.'' Here''s my favorite part:

That message [to have courage to question things and push back] gets hammered home in the classroom, according to Benjamin Linder, an assistant professor of design and mechanical engineering. His classes have an art-school feel: students, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, shorts or pajama bottoms, are up and down and walking around the room, clustering around their projects and discussing them, cutting blue foam with a hot-wire cutter to make models. Linder told me he pushes his students not to just follow instructions. ''Engineering,'' he says, ''has traditionally been focused on doing it right, but not on what''s the right thing to do.'' That means designing products that are environmentally friendly and that respond to the needs of the people using them and not just to what the purchasing department wants. He urges his students to be more than team players. The goal, Linder said with utter earnestness, was to teach fledgling engineers ''how to be bold.''

That might be it. Something more engineering schools should be teaching students these days. How to be bold.


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