Designing the new engineer

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: “How can you tell an extroverted engineer? He’s the one who looks at your shoes when he talks to you.” Olin came into being, Miller told me last spring in his office on campus, to make engineers “comfortable as citizens and not just calculating machines.” Olin is stressing creativity, teamwork and entrepreneurship — and, in no small part, courage. “I don’t see how you can make a positive difference in the world,” he emphasized, “if you’re not motivated to take a tough stand and do the right thing.”

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. “I 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 work” in the real world, he said. “The skills they are trying to develop are very meaningful in environments that we try to build.”

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.

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  1. Well, I’m skeptical. In engineering there is absolutely no substitute for analysis and calculation. How you FEEL about the bridge has nothing at all to do with whether it will hold up or fail.

    I don’t care how introverted or extroverted the engineers who designed my airplane were: I care that they were good engineers.

    The article is silly, too: since when are engineers stereotyped as “socially awkward clock-punchers”? Clock punchers? I’ve had lots of engineering jobs, but none of them involved clock punching, unless you count consultants who are paid by the hour. They certainly don’t “punch” a clock; they calculate a bill.

  2. I don’t know much about the college itself, but the article made it sound like it was a sort of UC Santa Cruz for engineering, with plenty of touchy-feely leftiness and not much rigor. In short, the sort of engineering school a New York Times journalist would love…

  3. I once read that long ago Engineering programs were 5 years not 4 years and required the usual liberal arts classes or non engineers. To me that sounds like a better solution to the shortcomings of conventional engineering education. Of course who wants to pay an extra year of tuition? I have not heard of any employers who would give preference to 5 year program graduates. For much of its history West Point was an engineering school. All the cadets took the same classes. I do not think introversion and clock punching was a problem there.

  4. Sister Howitzer says:

    I was a grad student in Public Health, and while creativity, teamwork entrepreneurship and courage are all valuable qualities, I’m not sure how you teach those things. The classes I dreaded the most were those that required team projects and “experiential learning”, whatever that is. Everyone complained about those classes- they were worthless and generally taught by professors who were too lazy to actually plan anything useful.

  5. IEEE Spectrum (engineering society magazine) did a story on Olin College just over a year ago that didn’t make it sound nearly so weak as the commenters above seem to be guessing that it is.

    There’s more “meat” there than in the programs I’ve taught in (engineering major, but liberal arts/professional schools). Our engineering undergraduates, and even the weaker grad students, were mostly suited to cookie-cutter work.

  6. Well their degree programs were accredited by ABET in August and that accreditation applies retroactively to their first graduates. That’s a good sign. It’s possible that the early students might have had trouble getting engineering jobs until accreditation came through.

    But yes, I don’t particularly want to have anything to do with an engineering school that journalists and liberal artists think is cool. While engineering design can be pretty touchy feely, engineering analysis on the nuts and bolts level is not.

  7. Hi, I graduated in Olin’s first class in 2006. I am working at a IT network management software startup. My degree was in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I have also started a company that developed and offered for sale a software audio synthesizer for use in music.

    President Miller’s comment surprised me, but I don’t know what his expectations were for us. A lot of us are in grad school and industry, although perhaps we’ve ended up with a lot more design- and entrepreneurship-focused students. Also it’s only been just over a year since our first graduation ever, so it’s not like any of us have PhDs.

    Also keep in mind that we’re getting into schools and looking for jobs without the benefit of an alumni network.

    As for Google, it’s the number one employer of Olin graduates. Offhand I can think of about 5 or 6 of my friends there. Out of about 65 graduates a year for the last two years I think that puts it around 4-5%. I don’t believe any other school can claim that. 🙂

    Also, several students are doing graduate work at places like Caltech, Oxford, and Stanford. Lots of them have gotten NSF grants and various other scholarships. Two students went to Antarctica to work as a mechanic and as a scientist. Another guy is at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and goes out on the ocean all the time to do science.

    And to respond to the comment about bridges above, I wouldn’t trust an Olin undergraduate to build a bridge. We know that we would need to pursue a lot more school and do internships and get professional licensing before we would even dream of joining a team that would design a bridge.

    But once we were on that team, we would be unafraid to voice our concerns, learn from the other team members, dive into additional study material, and act as whistle-blower if something was going horribly wrong.

  8. The IEEE article was much better; the school is more interesting than the NYT article makes it out to be. But I’ll admit that I’m always leery of attempts to de-geekify engineering – after all, a great engineer needs passion, creativity, _and_ hard-headed competence.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Socially awkward clock puncher? I have always seen engineers as more the Captain Blood type. They seldom make movies about engineers because who would believe? EEs get all the chicks, right JJ?

    W.E.W., P.E.

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    Three Olin students from the class of 2007 are working at Google. So is a student from the class of 2006.

    According to the same pages, other Olin students have gotten good jobs, prestigious fellowships or acceptances to top schools. So employers and graduate schools must believe that Olin offers a good education.

  11. “Engineers aren’t creative”

    Same old stereotype. Buildings, theorems, and computers appear ex nihilo in the land of you-must-know-poetry-to-be-creative.

  12. For the record, my brother is an electrical engineer (digital logic design) with a Masters and works for Boeing.

    He is a mack daddy, extroverted, ladies man… he blows the stereotype away (he is also 1/2 asian). He does make fun of all the other engineers though.

    How much of Olin is curriculum, and how much of it is due to seductiveness?

  13. “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”…what in the world does this mean? The *invention* of technology at one level involves the *use* of technology at a lower level. Google does not “invent” integrated circuits, but they invent search algorithms. The people who invented the original computers did not invent the vacuum tubes and other components on which they were based.

    Also–“Cathy thinks many Olin grads will end up in ‘the ancillary functions like marketing, program management, etc. in a tech company'”…few executives would consider marketing (in the broad sense, encompassing sales as well as other functions) to be an “ancillary function.” Few executives destined for success, in any event.


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