Engineering education needs a radical redesign, concluded the F.W. Olin Foundation. So, the foundation put all their assets into creating the tuition-free Olin College of Engineering near Boston. From the New York Times Magazine:
Most engineering schools stress subjects like differential calculus and physics, and their graduates tend to end up narrowly focused and likely to fit the stereotype of a socially awkward clock-puncher. Richard K. Miller, the president of the school, likes to share a professional joke: â€œHow can you tell an extroverted engineer? Heâ€™s the one who looks at your shoes when he talks to you.â€ Olin came into being, Miller told me last spring in his office on campus, to make engineers â€œcomfortable as citizens and not just calculating machines.â€ Olin is stressing creativity, teamwork and entrepreneurship â€” and, in no small part, courage. â€œI donâ€™t see how you can make a positive difference in the world,â€ he emphasized, â€œif youâ€™re not motivated to take a tough stand and do the right thing.â€
Olin, which opened in 2002, teaching engineering through project-based learning. There are no academic departments and no tenure for faculty. It contracts out humanities, business and life-science classes to nearby colleges. Forty percent of Olin students are female, which is quite high for an engineering school.
Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research at Google, wondered if the Olin program might produce precisely the kind of students Google is looking for. â€œI absolutely believe that teamwork and experiential learning and understanding problems and bringing multiple disciplines together to solve problems is fundamental to the way that engineers workâ€ in the real world, he said. â€œThe skills they are trying to develop are very meaningful in environments that we try to build.â€
However, the president “is concerned that few of the class of 2006 are going on to graduate study in engineering or jobs in the field,” the Times reports. It doesn’t say what they are doing instead. Nor does it report that Google has hired any Olin grads.
Update: Several commenters say Google has hired Olin grads from the first two classes. (You’d think the Times reporter would have included that fact.)
“Cathy,” who has an engineering degree and an MBA, checked out Olin with her son. She wrote that the school is very small and can’t do everything: The focus is on mechanical and electrical engineering.
The emphasis in team work, project based learning, communications and entrepreneurship means that they are turning out “real” workers who can function in society. More to the point and shrewd calculation on their part, they are focusing on turning out (hopefully) successful entrepreneurs and tech company leaders. Many of their graduates are a natural fit for a tech company’s marketing department, for example. Good for future alum giving. They are also good for companies that “use” technology rather than “are” inventors of technology, which is why they are a good fit for the Googles of the world.
Olin doesn’t have the faculty or funding to get into interdisciplinary areas such as bioengineering or nanotechnology, she was told on campus.
Cathy thinks many Olin grads will end up in “the ancillary functions like marketing, program management, etc. in a tech company, or in tech-related functions in an industrial company. Unless, of course, they choose to go to grad school, knowing that they must make up some basic stuff that they may have missed at Olin.” Others will earn MBA or law degrees, she predicts.