Reengineering HigherEd: Student-Centered Learning at Olin College

Twenty miles west of Boston is a small engineering school that just might be the most important experiment in higher education in the country. Olin College was designed to be different.
After industrialist Franklin Olin’s death in 1938, the foundation he endowed funded 78 buildings on higher education campuses. Inspired by NSF reports about the need for better engineering education, the foundation trustees began contemplating a college from scratch.
In 1997 the Olin Foundation announced its ambitious plans for the college, and planning and architectural design work for a state-of-the-art campus began. Rick Miller, engineering dean at Iowa, signed on as president. By the end of 1999, the new institution’s leadership team had been hired and site development work commenced on 70 acres adjacent to Babson College. Olin’s first faculty members joined the college by September 2000.

Student-Centered and Philanthropic

Construction delays meant the inaugural 2001-02 year would be spent in modular buildings. Thirty freshmen were recruited for this transition year. They were treated as partners in development of the academic and student life programs. While the charter speaks about care for students “not only as scholars and engineers but also as people,” the unanticipated level of student-teacher collaboration became a core value and remains a key differentiator of learning at Olin.

Another evolution in the mission occurred after three founding faculty members returned from a sabbatical more aware of how much the college had to share. A Collaboratory was formed for the transformation of other institutions.
Jessica Townsend is a rocket scientist (a mechanical engineer with a specialty in thermal-fluids) that helped Jeff Bezos go to space and the new Collaboratory lead. Dr. Townsend sees the Olin mission as educating engineering innovators.

What Makes Olin Different

There are at least 10 things that stand out about Olin that other higher education institutions could consider implementing to innovate their programs and graduates:
1. People to People. “This is a people place,” said president Rick Miller. He talks about engineering as a creative enterprise that begins and ends with people and their desire for a better world.
Susan, a senior, said the small size–about 350 students–allows them to maintain a culture of respect and trust. “The community is important–it’s small, relational, and focused on helping people.”
Olin College Students Smiling
2. Teaching. Olin employs great engineers that support great student learning experiences.
There is no graduate school, no pressure to publish. Olin is a place where great teachers can reimagine learning. They receive 150 CVs for every post–it helps to be in metro Boston.
The Olin faculty doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. Take Amon Millner for example, he’s an assistant professor of computing and innovation (a title that doesn’t exist anywhere else) and he teaches computing across the curriculum–like a roving coding ninja. Like most faculty, he has broad interests that would be left behind elsewhere.
3. Student-centered. Olin is chartered as a student-centered institution–and they really take that seriously. It starts with the selection process; 200 high school students come to campus where they are placed in groups and given challenging assignments. Observers score their ability to collaborate on solutions. The process yields a 50/50 gender balance of engineering-interested collaboration-ready young people.
After a student completes a course, they become eligible to serve as a teaching assistant (ninja), and many of them do. Eric Miller, a second-year student (below with father Thomas), said serving as a ninja is a great way to reinforce learning.
Olin Student with his father
4. Project-based. Students conduct 20 or 30 big projects at Olin. Most are framed by faculty but leave lots of room for student voice and choice. Most result in a public product shared with the Olin community and on a student portfolio website.
5. Maker. In most engineering programs, the first few years are a series of plug and crank courses with few application opportunities. From week one at Olin students are building and making. In a first semester course, Design Nature, students build hopping objects that mirror hopping animals. From week one, they learn, research, design, make, and manage.
Electrical engineering is introduced with a lab of sensors and blood pressure cuffs (below).
Students sitting at computers in science lab
 They have reinvented the curriculum three times. At Olin, the student-centered, people-first, project-based maker culture is the curriculum.
6. Integrated. There are no departments at Olin, just real problems to solve. Students and faculty make connections across disciplines. Many of the classes are taught in integrated team taught blocks like Modeling and Simulation. Coding, sketching and writing are supported across the curriculum.
Known for an innovative sequence of four design courses, Olin is piloting a similar 16 credit sequence called Quantitative Engineering Analysis (QEA), a combination of math, physics, and data science. It includes hands-on projects and papers.
7. Experimental. Both students and faculty realized that all was not well with the new QEA course. What’s different about Olin is that when this happens they hit the pause button, and hold design sessions and Iterate on course design. At Olin, students are often involved in improving classes in the spirit of continuous curriculum innovation. The founding precepts include instructional risk taking.
Another example of curriculum experimentation is the Iterate course, a quick two credit course where students can attack a problem. The course can be taken multiple times to address new problems.
8. Collaborative. Chartered as a philanthropic organization, outreach has always been part of the Olin mission. Collaboration that started as design partnerships with the University of Illinois and then UTEP was kicked into gear by a $6 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation in support of the Collaboratory, the front door to Olin for universities. Three or four university and international groups visit Olin every week. The 2016 Summer Institutes were packed.
9. Feedback and Reflection. Olin students get a lot of feedback. First year student Gretchen said “Olin is about learning not grades.”
In an effort to get away from chasing grades and to develop more student autonomy, the first year is pass/ fail. Students receive feedback on how they’re doing as a team member and project teams get frequent feedback.
From week one, students gain the opportunity to learn new maker skills from anyone on campus that has earned the relevant certification (displayed on the Halloween decorated “who knows what” board.)
Students in machine shop
List of faculty skills
10. Mindset. “As important as content knowledge is, along with the skills to apply it, something else is at least as important today: the set of attitudes, behaviors and motivations that enable knowledgeable graduates to work with others,” said Rick Miller.
“There is an urgent need for substantial improvement in the graduates’ competencies in ethical behavior and trustworthiness, teamwork and consensus building, effective communication and persuasion, entrepreneurial mindset, creativity and design thinking, empathy and social responsibility, interdisciplinary thinking and global awareness and perception,” added Miller.
Olin materials science professor Jonathan Stolk believes young people deserve the opportunity to flourish and live a purposeful life. In addition to advanced materials, Dr. Stolk has become a student of motivation. He launches projects with a rubric of learner experience in mind. He and his colleagues are engineers of human potential.
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Dan Sharkovitz

Thank you for this excellent overview about some of the qualities that make Olin different. Would you mind if I used it as a discussion starter for a group of high school teachers and administrators?

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