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Ten Years In, an Innovative College for Undergraduate Engineers Snags Prestigious Award

Trio of innovators. Richard Miller (center), with Sherra Kerns and David Kerns, on the Olin College campus.

Franklin W. Olin College

The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering opened its doors 10 years ago with the goal of being a disruptive force in U.S. higher education. But its radically different approach to training undergraduate engineers isn't obvious at first glance.

On paper, the students attending Olin College look and act like their peers at the many small, elite private schools spread across the United States that have been around for generations. They arrive straight from high school, with sterling academic records and staggering lists of extracurricular activities. They spend their entire careers at the Needham, Massachusetts, campus, and they leave after 4 years with a degree that prepares them for top-ranked graduate schools and well-paying jobs.

But looks can be deceiving. Few institutions have more eagerly embraced the winds of change blowing through U.S. engineering education than Olin College. And last week it received the $500,000 Bernard M. Gordon Prize from the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) that recognizes "experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders."

The award cites the college's commitment to design process, collaborative teams, entrepreneurship, and real-world projects that are helping the school redefine what an engineering degree represents. The academy also praises the college's attempt to scale up the Olin experience through summer workshops for engineering faculty members from other institutions who want feedback on their innovative ideas before implementing them. At the same time, what passes for radical at many universities today—notably their lust after massively open online courses and other uses of educational technology—isn't at all what Olin officials have in mind.

The NAE award recognizes three academic leaders at Olin—Richard Miller, the college's first employee and its founding president, and the husband-and-wife team of David Kerns and Sherra Kerns, chaired faculty members and, respectively, former provost and former vice president for innovation.

Miller talked with ScienceInsider this week about what Olin is trying to accomplish. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: Is Olin College still offering students a different engineering education?

R.M.: Yes. It's profoundly different, and we're not at all worried that Olin has become conventional. We're still on the same pathway as we began.

To exaggerate, Olin's definition of an engineer is someone who envisions something that has never been, and does whatever it takes to make it happen. If you can't envision it, you can't create it. And we're looking for people with passion, because nothing hard ever gets done without real passion behind it.

So in addition to competence in math and science, Olin students have an abundance of creativity and passion and intrinsic motivation. To find them, we don't think you can look at test scores. You have to actually meet them. So Olin has a mandatory weekend of interviews for applicants.

Most of it is done in a team, groups of five from all over the world. In the first exercise, we give them a box and tell them they have 3 hours to design a particular widget. So it's a bit of a contest. We actually don't care how the project turns out, but we are looking to see how they interact with one another. …

The next exercise is to see how they deal with controversy. They have 30 minutes to develop a presentation, and every member of the group has to speak. And we sit in the back of the room and watch them. …

The last piece is a one-on-one interview, in which we ask them what it means to lead a good life. … This is all part of defining what we call multiple intelligences, which is a direct outgrowth of Howard Gardner's work at Harvard [University].

Q: You have 7 years of graduates. Where are they going, and is there any correlation with who you think you are attracting?

R.M.: About 41% of the graduates in our seven classes go on to graduate school. Of those, 22% go to Harvard, Stanford, or MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. And 65% of those are attending a top-10 graduate engineering program. That's one of the surprises, because we didn't set out to create a predoctoral program at the school.

We set out to create a new paradigm for undergraduate engineering education, and I think we have made a good start. But the students were paying attention to something else. We thought we were talking about innovative engineering. They thought we were talking about education reform.

In fact, I have a small group, maybe 10% of each graduating class, who are trying to get involved in designing seminar courses that deal with how people learn and to change how STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education is provided. And I don't know what to tell them, to be honest. I'm not sure what you can do in STEM education with an undergraduate engineering degree. But a lot of them are very good with software design, and we are working to place them.

As for the other 59% that don't go on to more school, an employer survey given out two times, after 6 months and 2 years, finds that new Olin graduates are equal to those with 3 to 5 years of experience. We believe that competency is a consequence of working in teams. Our kids are used to problems that are ill-defined. They develop practical solutions and get it done. And that's what most companies like.

Q: Are you really getting a different type of student? Or would other top engineering schools say the same thing about their students?

R.M.: Let me put it this way. Say, for example, during that last part of the application process, where it's one-on-one, you're sitting in the room with the kid and he or she is talking and looking down at their shoes and rocking back and forth and not making eye contact. And you ask, "So what do you do when you're not solving equations?" And the student says: "Well, I play video games."

Now at Olin, that would probably not get you admitted. Despite the fact he might have perfect test scores, and he may be the next prodigy in computer science, I'm not sure that he or she would fit in well at Olin and grow, and the other students might not get much from the interaction. So we might put that fish back in the pond, and he or she would show up at another university. And he may go on to win a Nobel Prize. But it wouldn't be an Olin kid.

Q: What's your attrition rate?

R.M.: It's very low. I think our 4-year graduation rate is between 90% and 95%. Lots of students may decide they don't want to be a practicing engineer, and that's fine with us. But they get the degree.

An increasing fraction of Olin graduates are going to medical school or getting M.D./Ph.D. degrees, or going to law school, often in patent law. For example, almost 10% of our graduating class last year went directly to Harvard Business School. They have this program in which students agree to go out and work for 2 years and then come back to campus for a 2-year M.B.A.

Q: Your gender ratio is pretty even. But how are you doing in attracting other types of underrepresented minorities?

R.M.: In a nutshell, not nearly as well. We have about the same percentage as other small, elite, undergraduate engineering schools, which is to say about 5%.

It's very hard to do. One explanation is that our medium math/verbal SAT score has been 1490 to 1500 for the past 5 years. And if you look within the underrepresented population of high school students, the percentage of students who have an SAT score in that range is quite low. And those kids can go anywhere they want.

Olin does really well in competing for students against other engineering schools. But it's harder for us to compete with the Harvards and Stanfords because of what I call opportunity costs.

They are 18 when they apply, and Olin offers a really cool engineering degree program. On the other hand, they're 18 and at the top of their class. I might want to be an engineer, they think, or I might want to be a brain surgeon. Do I have to make that decision at 18? If I go to Stanford, I don't have to decide right now.

Q: What about the decision to charge tuition? Your Web site says it'll cost students almost $40,000 a year to go to Olin, even with a half-tuition scholarship.

R.M.: Right. We give every student, independent of family need, a $20,000-a-year merit-based scholarship as part of the admissions package. In addition to that, Olin is one of a small and declining number of schools that also gives full need-based aid and has need-blind admissions. In spite of all that, we are much more expensive than we were 5 years ago.

Q: Why the change?

R.M.: It was a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Like so many schools, we had a significant drop in our endowment, which makes it unviable in the long term to continue to offer full-tuition scholarships to every student. We also guessed correctly that this would not be a short-term recession, that it would be a long recovery, and that we couldn't just hold our breath in the meantime. We needed to find another way to breathe.

Q: Have you noticed any change in the demographics?

R.M.: We were scared to death of what might happen. We did everything we could to try to prevent changes in demographics. In terms of the numbers, the only real effect is that we had a dip in female to male ratio in the first class, in fall 2010. And that's because women are an underrepresented group and because of that they are offered a better financial deal by many schools.

Q: Let's talk about faculty. Without offering graduate degrees, is it harder to attract faculty members interested in carrying out a strong research program?

R.M.: Olin set out to be not just a teaching institution. After all, you can only teach what you know, and if you're not continually learning, in a fast-moving field, then your usefulness is limited.

Olin faculty receive more competitively awarded funding, per capita, than most other universities: a total of between $1 million and $2 million a year for a faculty of between 35 and 40. We do this by having teaching loads that are not as high as at many tuition-driven, undergraduate institutions. We want them to have time for research.

We expect faculty members to produce papers as good as anybody else in their discipline. But it might not be good enough, in terms of quantity, for promotion at a research-intensive university, where faculty are expected to, say, produce five papers a year and train two Ph.D. students and bring in $500,000 a year in federal grants to fund the tuition for those graduate students.

The type of faculty members we recruit is different. Their preparation and background is as good or better than at most universities where I've worked. They are very well-prepared people, with great credentials.

But the difference is that Olin looks for faculty members who really want to be inspirational teachers at the undergraduate level. Instead of working toward a Nobel Prize themselves, they are more interested in preparing a future Nobel Prize winner.

Q: What are your plans for the next 10 years?

R.M.: Olin has a mission, given to us by the Olin Foundation, to become an important and constant contributor to the advancement of engineering education in the United States and around the world. So we feel that, given our current educational paradigm, that tweaking the knobs and having the SAT scores [of incoming students] go up 20 points isn't really worth the energy.

We have a higher calling, and that is to inspire other universities to think about the undergraduate education they are offering. The idea is to incorporate the latest learning in cognitive sciences and education and do a better job of inspiring the next generation of students in STEM education.

As you probably know, only about 4.5% of the bachelor degrees awarded in the United States last year went to students studying engineering. And it's a declining market share. About half of the students who declared engineering upon entering any college in the U.S. will not graduate with an engineering degree. We think that this is largely a fixable problem, but not by staying home and teaching Olin students.

Instead, we're hoping to help inspire and lead a transformation of engineering education in the U.S. and around the world. So we plan to expand our faculty without expanding our student body, to work more with other universities in what we call consultation and co-design partnerships. The idea is for faculty members at other universities to come to us with their ideas about how to innovate, and give them a chance to try them out and plant them at Olin. There are about 10 universities that have already done that, and about 200 universities have contacted us to talk about their ideas.

To enroll, they have to send us a proposal, and include the fact that there are others on campus who share their views on reform. Before they launch it, however, they want to talk with like-minded people, and figure out how to implement it. We may also hold alumni sessions to see what has worked, and to spread these ideas.

We have about 350 beds on campus, and we don't intend to grow our student population. But we hope that through these partnerships, we can touch 25,000 students a year without enrolling them on our campus.

Q: In some ways, Olin has a very traditional structure, in terms of operating a residential college for 18- to 22-year-old students who stay at Olin and graduate in 4 years. That's not what people at Coursera and edX and Udacity are talking about when they describe what they want to accomplish. What's wrong with their vision?

R.M.: Rather than traditional, I'd say we have a residential vision for education. We think of engineering as a profession. And like all professions, it has less to do with what you know than with what you can do. To be good at a profession is the equivalent of being good at a performing art. And I don't believe that Coursera has a vision of teaching concert pianists over the Internet.

When you have our type of educational goal, I think it's unlikely that in the short term remote education is going to replace that face-to-face interaction and co-design. Having that human contact with an expert who can react to the important issues is essential.

You can't learn everything from a book. A lot of it comes from direct experience. You have to learn to listen to that inner voice and shape it with reactions from other people. I don't think you can learn to become a good public speaker by only interacting with a computer. I think you have to learn to perform in front of a live audience, to read the audience, how to deal with stage fright, and so on.

Q: What about training an engineer?

R.M.: You can learn a lot of the content from a book, or by interacting with the Internet. But you can't learn the process of engineering from a book.

The American aerospace industry was invented in a bicycle shop in Ohio. It wasn't invented in a physics lab. In the United States, in my view, we don't do a good enough job of teaching the process of creative design. And while there's obviously a place for the content and body of knowledge, assuming that is all education is about or the most important part is a distraction.

Imagine medical education had discovered Coursera and decided we can vastly increase the number of cardiologists in this country by making their education free over the Internet to thousands of people who can learn tomorrow. And we'll use social media as the primary interaction method and assessment.

Are you ready to leave your cardiologist and go there? At some point, they need to do open-heart surgery. It can certainly reduce the early part of the curriculum, so that people aren't bored to tears by sitting in a classroom. But the heart of it, pardon my choice of words, is what you can do. It's not about what you know. In other words, it's experiential learning.

*Update 10 January, 4:20 p.m.: This article has been revised to clarify Miller's view of the application process at other schools.