The Olin Experiment

Can a tiny new college reinvent engineering education?

18 min read
The Olin Experiment
Photo: Leah Fasten

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.”

“Lots of stuff in engineering are done without a whole bunch of science. These students are quite capable of a lot of stuff now, and we don’t need to deny that”

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.

Olin’s small campus perches atop a hill in a forested area amid the affluent suburbs of Needham and Wellesley, a half-hour drive west of Boston. The school’s largest building, with all its classrooms and laboratories, is the Academic Center, a four-story structure curved around an oval lawn, a long row of tall columns running along its glass facade. Across the oval two other curvy buildings house administration and faculty offices, the library, an auditorium, student activities rooms, and the dining hall. The buildings, with their beige brick walls and white interiors with wooden, glass, and stainless-steel details, have a sleek, quasi-antiseptic feel—a stark contrast to many Boston-area campuses and their centuries-old, ivy-covered red brick.

But the differences between those traditional schools and Olin really become clear when you step into a class like Linder’s Design Nature. The course exemplifies one of the key beliefs underlying Olin’s philosophy: design—the process of transforming an idea into a useful thing—is the core of what engineers do.

Linder, who studied product design at MIT before becoming a mechanical engineering professor at Olin, tells me that his course is a “bio-inspired introduction to design.” The class includes two projects during the semester. The first is a mechanical hopper. Students consider click beetles, springtails, spittlebugs, and fleas. They study how the insects propel themselves, and they use that knowledge to design their own hoppers, he explains. “Did I show you the damage one did to the ceiling?”

The second project, more challenging, is the glass wall climber, which the students make out of plastic pieces, electric motors, pneumatic actuators, and suction cups. To fabricate the parts they need, they use Olin’s two machine shops, which have a plastic thermoformer, a laser cutter, and other tools that they are certified as freshmen to operate. And to evaluate the climbers’ traits—a gecko’s gait, for example—the students hold an entertaining demonstration. “Lots of stuff in engineering are done without a whole bunch of science. These students are quite capable of a lot of stuff now, and we don’t need to deny that.”

In most traditional schools, students sit through separate calculus, physics, and chemistry lectures during the first two years and have only a few canned-type laboratories. Olin doesn’t eliminate each and every “chalk and talk” lecture; some professors do teach that way. But Olin’s curriculum, unlike conventional ones, tightly integrates the basic disciplines with practical projects.

To see how this interdisciplinary approach works, I head out to a Math/Physics class, which, like the Design Nature class, meets in a studio setting. The instructors are electrical engineering professor Mark Somerville and math professor John Geddes. They tell me that days earlier the students attended lecture-style classes on topics such as differential equations and kinematics of rigid bodies. Today the students are being assigned a four-week-long final project: conceiving a mechanical system that incorporates those topics and then modeling, simulating, and building it. The goal is that they understand important engineering concepts like feedback and control, as well as learn how to work in teams, communicate, and manage schedules.

“Today the main deliverable is the proposal for the final project,” announces Somerville, who is tall and thin and considered dropping out of graduate school to become a chef. “We’re expecting you to devote some serious time on this.” Geddes, who has spiky reddish-blond hair and an earring, moves with Somerville from group to group, asking students somewhat Socratically about their project ideas and why they made the choices they did.

One group wants to build a model of a satellite orbiting a planet; another envisions an off-balance Ferris wheel that is heavier in one segment; a third group dreams up a pendulum with a ball at its tip that rolls as it swings. At one table, freshmen Andrea Striz and Sylvia Schwartz work on an ambitious idea, but they swear me to secrecy. “We want to patent it later on, so it’s better if you don’t mention it,” Striz says. I ask if I can use the title of their project, but they are still very concerned about their intellectual property. “You can say it’s music related,” Schwartz says, adding that she plays the violin and Striz plays the trumpet. “We’re trying to combine our passions with our classes.”

When the first students arrived at Olin in the fall of 2001, the campus wasn’t much more than some temporary prefabricated buildings near a soccer field. The school called them the Modular Academic Center. The students called them trailers. “For the first couple of months we had to attend classes there, and a sign said, ‘Hard Hats Required in This Area,’” says Michael Curtis, a senior from Iowa. “That’s an image that has always been associated with Olin in my mind.”

That first group, of 30 students, was there in a special prefreshman year to help Olin put together its curriculum, agreeing to spend five years rather than the usual four. “So we showed up, and we were just sort of, ‘Okay, we’re going to make this college,’” recalls Leighton Ige, a senior from Honolulu. Curtis and Ige say they were involved in all sorts of decisions, including what furniture would be in the dormitory and what the student government board would be like. Students’ feedback on how the school should work continues to be an integral part of Olin.

At the same time, the first buildings were going up, and the campus began to take shape. Money wasn’t a problem. The school’s endowment was one of the largest outlays in U.S. higher education. The benefactor, the F.W. Olin Foundation, was established by Franklin Walter Olin (1860-1951), a Cornell University-educated civil engineer and entrepreneur, who went on to found a metals, chemicals, and ammunition company that evolved into today’s Olin Corp., in Clayton, Mo., which last year had sales of $2.4 billion.

The foundation became known for awarding hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of buildings on dozens of college campuses. But over the years, its board members began to nurture a more ambitious idea. They thought about funding not just a building but an entire school, one that would address a key problem in higher education: the way engineers were being trained. In 1997, the foundation announced it was committing all its assets to the building of a model engineering school that would emphasize entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary learning, and communications skills, hoping to inspire changes at other schools.

Employee No. 1 was Richard K. Miller, dean of the college of engineering at the University of Iowa, who was hired as president in early 1999. At a breakfast meeting in Olin’s dining hall, Miller explains the philosophy behind what he calls the “do and then learn” approach. “Students start out with an audacious project, which would in many institutions be heretical, except we do that deliberately,” the amiable 56-year-old executive says. “Because, after all, when you get hired in a corporation, that’s the first thing that happens to you: they give you a challenge for which you’ve not had the prerequisites. It’s all about learning how to learn. So we do that here from day one.”

Miller, who paid his own college expenses by playing keyboards in a rock group called the Saint James Infirmary Band that once opened for Janis Joplin, says the original 30 students were put through intense “hypothesis testing.” The first idea the president and the initial faculty tested cut to the heart of the traditional “learn and then do” method. They wanted to determine whether students have to sit through a barrage of fundamental courses before designing and building anything at all. They divided the students into small groups and assigned them a task: they had eight weeks to design, build, and demonstrate a pulse oximeter, a medical instrument clipped onto a patient’s finger to electronically measure pulse rate and blood oxygen level.

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 project.”

During the following semester, the faculty conducted similar group experiments. They also visited more than 30 colleges and universities, met with officials from companies such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and pored through reports and other data on engineering education. From that exhaustive study, the curriculum began to emerge.

But the enthusiasm of faculty and students during those days sometimes proved difficult to manage, recalls Provost David V. Kerns Jr. With all wanting to pitch in, drafting the first curriculum became tangled in seemingly endless discussions. Kerns’s solution? He locked away a group of five teachers and one student in a retreat at the Endicott House conference center, an MIT-owned mansion in Dedham, not far from Olin, and told that group not to come back until it had a rough draft of the curriculum.

Much to Kerns’s surprise, the group, after three days of secret deliberations, came back with a document entitled “Once Upon a College.” It was a curriculum proposal written as a play, with five acts, dialogues, and epilogue. “It was very cleverly presented,” Kerns recalls. “It was an excellent starting point.”

Olin’s curriculum has been evolving ever since. In its basic components, it looks like that of any other school, with prerequisites, electives, and so forth. What makes it unique is the number of design projects students do. Starting with the hoppers and climbers during the first semester, the assignments get more sophisticated. Soon the students are making solar-powered dragsters, water-propelled rockets, and electromagnetic rail guns.

“People here are amazing. Whatever you think you’re good at, there’s someone who is better than you. It’s extremely humbling, but it’s really cool at the same time”

The design experience culminates with the Senior Consulting Program for Engineering, or SCOPE, in which students tackle real engineering problems from companies and other organizations that partner with Olin. "The students are actually acting just like employees of the company would act," says David Barrett, a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of SCOPE. “It’s great training for when they actually get their first job.”

There’s always been debate on how to train engineers. In the United States, the controversy reached a climax with the "shop versus school" clash. In the late 1800s, most civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers learned their trades in the field or at machine shops. They were all apprentices pursuing not a degree but rather the knowledge needed to do the kinds of projects then in demand. Then, the school culture came as a movement to institutionalize the education of engineers—a vision that eventually prevailed.

Not long after, the school model was taken a step further during World War II. “That was a shift to more research-oriented, graduate school–oriented, science-based engineering education,” says Ronald Kline, a professor of the history of technology at Cornell. U.S. government agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, he says, pumped billions of dollars in research funding into universities, in effect creating what became known as “engineering science”—the idea that engineers needed a set of basic scientific tools, such as thermodynamics and electromagnetism, with which they could build their practical creations.

During the past couple of decades, opposition to this view has grown increasingly strong. The establishment of Olin has been one of the most momentous events in this shift in thinking, but it is by no means the only one. Project-based learning is being explored at large institutions such as Rensselaer and Oklahoma State and at smaller ones such as Harvey Mudd and Vassar. Purdue and Virginia Tech now have departments of engineering education. And MIT, perhaps the most influential U.S. engineering school, is in the middle of a major review of its undergraduate curriculum.

“I look at Olin and I say, ‘Gee, those guys are doing exactly what I wish we could do,’” says David Mindell, an MIT professor of the history of technology and a member of MIT’s curriculum-review task force. “I guess the jury is still out on what the graduates will end up doing, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot of question that they will be successful in one way or another.”

Says Henri Petroski, professor of civil engineering at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and a celebrated author of books on the philosophy and practice of engineering, “It’s a common misconception that engineering is applied science, in other words, that you know all the math and the science and you almost just look up a formula somewhere and crank out your engineering design. It doesn’t really work that way. Olin seems to recognize that this is getting the cart before the horse, so they are apparently trying to do it the other way. I’ll be very interested to follow them.”

But that’s not to say Olin doesn’t face a number of challenges. “In my opinion, the biggest question mark with Olin is whether they’re able to give their faculty enough time to do the research that keeps them as leaders in their respective fields,” Mindell says. “It’s hard to do without graduate students. It’s hard to do in a sort of college setting.”

In addition, teaching the Olin way also requires major investments in shop space and materials, notes Petroski. Yet he says that it can be done, at both big and small schools, and that the benefits are worth the investment. “I teach a course that is taken by freshmen mostly and some sophomores, and I incorporate design problems,” Petroski says. “Their eyes light up. They begin to realize they don’t have to know a lot. They begin to realize what the design process is. They begin to see how their minds work.”

The best thing about Olin? I asked that question of almost everybody I met during my visits to campus. Answers varied, but in most cases they boiled down to one element: the students.

To get a snapshot of what Olin students are doing, I arrive on an early spring morning to attend the Expo, a three day campuswide science and technology extravaganza in which students present their best work from the semester. Visitors, which that day included representatives from MIT, Intel, BAE Systems, and the design firm Ideo, receive evaluation forms and are encouraged to give feedback to the students.

George Jemmott, a sophomore from California, is presenting a system called “USB: Universal Serial Barista.” It’s a computer-controlled bartender, with four bottles connected to hoses and pumps. “You can have preprogrammed recipes,” he explains, instructing the system to blend two liquids to produce a purple mix. He says he is already designing a new version, with 16 reservoirs, and is applying for a grant from Olin to explore the system’s commercial potential.

Sylvie Boiteau, a smiling sophomore from Massachusetts with pigtails and a colorful striped shirt, tells me she and other students developed a system to help vending-machine owners change products’ prices more easily. Their solution is connecting the machines to the Internet to let owners alter electronic price tags using a Web site. She looks at a screen and fires off multiple mouse clicks to show me how she changes the price of Doritos in a machine connected to their system. “Let’s see by location: on the second floor of the restaurant at Olin. You can see right now it’s 75 cents, and we can change that to 80 cents.”

The work students present at the Expo is not only from classroom projects but also from extracurricular activities, such as hobbies and volunteer service, which Olin explicitly encourages students to pursue. Freshman Sean Calvo, from Washington, D.C., is standing beside a poster titled “Modeling: Not Just for Engineers Anymore.” He’s not talking about modeling and simulation but rather skin care, men’s makeup, and fashion shows. Among the array of samples he’s brought are seaweed purifying toner, a waterproof mascara, and Christian Dior Masque Stretch.

Later in the afternoon, I attend a performance by the Wired Ensemble, Olin’s conductorless orchestra. With the audience sitting in a wide corridor with high glass windows at the Academic Center, the ensemble, playing clarinet, alto and tenor sax, trumpet, viola, and timpani, performs a variety of pieces the students composed. Midway through the concert, one student dressed all in black recites sonnets from Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Inferno. With electrical engineering and music professor Diana Dabby at the piano, the group closes with the “Ebony Concerto” by Stravinsky.

The Expo ends with a big barbecue on the oval lawn, where I meet Gil Gray and Andrew Watchorn, engineers from National Instruments Corp. Holding hot dogs in the late-afternoon sun, they say they were impressed with Olin’s approach to engineering education. “Engineering is sometimes painful,” one says. “Yeah,” the other agrees, “and it should be fun.”

The size of Olin’s campus and of its faculty and student body also makes Olin a unique place. While MIT, for instance, has over 4000 undergraduate students, about half in the school of engineering, plus some 6000 graduate students, Olin has less than 300 undergrads and no grad students. You get a sense of the small community feeling just by walking around; students nod or say hi at you and seem willing to talk to anyone, even a stranger in the cafeteria.

One evening, as I eat my grilled chicken, several students sit next to me, and soon I find myself in the middle of a lively conversation. Topics jump quickly from summer internships to freedom of expression in China to evolution to the pope. “Does the pope speak for God?” one young woman eating apple cake wants to know. A redhead next to her replies, “I thought he was, like, he has the cellphone to God.” The conversation somehow shifts to Harrison Ford, and a woman on the corner of the table says, “He’s on the list of the most sexy!”

Many students told me that the schoolwork demands a lot of time working in teams outside the classroom and that it helps that almost all students live on campus. Last-minute group meeting? How about 11 p.m. in the second-floor lounge? To see if I could catch any of that action, I asked if I could spend a night at the student dormitory. The school puts me in a room normally reserved for high school students visiting the campus. The comfortable room, which would normally accommodate two students, had some sparse furnishings, a generous window, climate control, and a private bathroom.

At around 8 p.m. I leave my room to see what the students are up to. I walk by a lounge with sofas, fireplace, big-screen television, DVD player, and game systems—one of every game console I know of and a few that I don’t. But it turns out I can hardly find anyone around. One tall student in blue pajamas tells me most people are out to see the latest Star Wars installment, which has just hit theaters. I chat with some students, and they say they are packing for the summer break. I go back to my room, and later that night I hear doors slamming and hysterical laughter well past midnight. Some things about the college experience are universal, apparently.

But the school’s small size also has its drawbacks. People learn more than they want to about each other. Dating in such a small circle means scarce options. And competition sometimes runs high in a place with so many bright people, each wanting to take the lead. The students call this isolation the “Olin bubble.” In fact, Olin is not the place for those who want to blend into the crowd. The school looks for adventurous, risk-taking students who show initiative and teamwork skills. And in addition to being academically exceptional, students also have to have a passion, “something they can’t not do,” as Sherra E. Kerns, vice president for innovation and research, puts it.

For the class of 2009, 546 students applied and 177 were invited to candidates’ weekends, when they came to the campus to participate in team activities to get a better idea what Olin is about. After that, 134 were admitted and 77 enrolled. That 24.5 percent acceptance rate puts Olin in a category with, for example, Caltech and Cornell, which accept 20 and 27 percent of applicants, respectively, for all undergraduate majors.

But despite the “Olin bubble” isolation, I get a strong feeling that Olin students are having fun. Are they happier than engineering students at other places? It’s hard to say. At places such as MIT, students often have a love-hate relationship with their school. But that’s not exactly the case at Olin. Says Jessica Townsend, a mechanical engineering professor who got her Ph.D. at MIT: “You still see a little bit of what you may call the MIT attitude, particularly as the semester goes on and finals are coming and everything is starting to wrap up and, wow, it’s craziness.” But she adds: “The relative happiness level of the Olin students—if you ask them, they’re a pretty happy bunch.”

“People here are amazing,” says Mikell Taylor, a senior from Ohio who is a black belt in tae kwon do and who turned down MIT for Olin. “Whatever you think you’re good at, there’s someone who is better than you at it. It’s extremely humbling, but it’s really cool at the same time, because you have access to all these really cool people.”

The hands-on projects, the extracurricular activities, and the well-equipped campus are definitely important factors in the happiness level. But there’s another key element: the faculty. Of Olin’s 32 professors, 22 are younger than 40. Eighteen are men and 14 women. One is a concert pianist; another is a yoga teacher; a third speaks Sinhalese. One looks like Kevin Kline. They come from places as diverse as NASA, Disney, and the National Security Agency. They are energetic, articulate, and attractive. As one student puts it, “Is it just me, or can every professor do stand-up comedy?”

During Olin’s very first semester, a major roadblock paralyzed the school. Perhaps too excited about the idea of project-based classes and interdisciplinary interactions, the faculty underestimated the effort and time that students would need to complete tasks and do the teamwork. One day, about a month after classes had started, a group of students descended on the president’s office and said things were not going well. They complained they had been working until 4 o’clock in the morning for several days and couldn’t stay awake in class anymore. Some were thinking about leaving.

Miller responded by declaring a moratorium on classes. He then talked to the faculty, who talked to the students, and all tried to figure out how much time to devote to different activities. “Let’s recalibrate; let’s relaunch this semester,” Miller recalls saying. And then the school did the sort of thing that makes Olin, well, Olin: it rented a giant inflatable bouncing castle and put it in the middle of the oval. “The kids went on the lawn, just stress relief, and the faculty members were out there, and students could throw eggs at the faculty and all kinds of things,” Miller says. “And we restarted. We got it better next time.”

Professors and students told me Olin got better and is still getting better. And it is also trying to assess how well it is doing. Sherra Kerns says Olin is defining the competencies its graduates should acquire, skills such as leadership and entrepreneurship, and thinking about how to measure such competencies. And even though that study is not yet complete, one early way of measuring Olin’s success will be seeing how students do after they get out of school. Will Olin’s alumni land desirable jobs? Will they be accepted in top graduate programs?

Judging by some of their internships, it seems the answer will be yes. Last summer, the class of seniors that is graduating this month did internships at Boeing, IBM, Lockheed, Motorola, Raytheon, and top university labs. At press time, Curtis was accepted to a Ph.D. program in quantum computing at the University of Oxford, in England; Taylor was waiting to hear from robotics companies and graduate programs; and Ige was working on a company he founded to manufacture meditation chairs.

Meanwhile, lots of folks will be keeping an eye on Olin’s first graduates as they make their way in the world. The NSF has funded a research project by a group of MIT social scientists studying the outcome of innovative engineering programs at Olin and at Vassar, says Susan Kemnitzer, deputy director of engineering education and centers at the NSF. “Everyone is very hopeful and watching closely what Olin is doing,” she says. “We’re still running the experiment, so we don’t have any data yet. But we will. And I think people should take a look at the data.”

That Olin graduates will be successful there’s not much doubt; but whether Olin will accomplish its long-term aspiration of fomenting change at other engineering schools remains an open question. “That’s actually a much bigger measure of our success or failure,” says electrical engineering professor Gill Pratt, a roboticist who came to Olin after 21 years at MIT. “It makes it even more important that we do a really good job. And it’s sometimes scary. There are so many eyes on us.”

To Probe Further

To see more photos of Olin’s campus and classes, and also a dictionary of “Olinese” terms like “Things That Go Bang” and “Olin Triangle,” see article, “The Olin Lingo.”

“Educating the Engineer of 2020,” a recent report on engineering education by the National Academy of Engineering, is available at

For more on the history of engineering education, see “The paradox of ‘engineering science’—a cold war debate about education in the U.S.,” by Ronald Kline, in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (Fall 2000), as well as America by Design, by David F. Noble (Oxford University Press, 1979).

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