Sunday, December 11, 2005

Olin College of Engineering

A few days ago I gave a talk at the Olin College of Engineering and visited Olin for the day. I was very impressed. Olin seems like a really, really interesting place and I greatly enjoyed my visit.

First, some background. Olin was founded around five years ago; they're set to graduate their first class this June. Olin is supported by the F.W. Olin foundation. The foundation used to be in the business of helping private colleges build science buildings. Carleton College has an Olin Hall, as do many other schools. Carleton's looks like a giant radiator. I took all my physics classes in Olin, and spent many a late night working on problem sets and fiddling with electronics there. It's nicer on the inside than the outside.

Anyway, I guess around a decade ago, the Olin foundation decided to stop building other college's buildings and build some of their own. Specifically, they decided to use their entire assets, around 400 million dollars, to start an innovative college of engineering. The college now has three buildings, a bunch of dorms, and around three hundred students. I'm not sure how much of the 400 million is for their endowment, but I think around 300 million. All students get a 4-year, full-tuition scholarship, which they say is valued at around $130,000.

Basically, the school has a lot of money. Their buildings are very nice, especially on the inside. (I must admit that I don't think they're that attractive on the outside. A little too ponderous and modern-looking for my tastes. I'd bet that their style won't age well.) So one of the things that's cool about Olin is that they've got a lot of resources, both human and physical. But there's much more that's interesting to me.

For one, it's an amazing experiment to be able to start a college. Even more amazing is to be able to do it and not start off poor. Starting from scratch means being able to re-think lots of assumptions about college. From what I can tell, Olin is doing a great job of avoiding some of the perils of engineering schools: Olin seems to emphasize cooperation and collaboration and not competition among students; they place a high value on arts, humanities and social sciences; they try to make it easy for students to study abroad; and they really emphasize project-based and hands-on learning. Also, unlike most engineering schools, Olin has been successful in maintaining something close to a gender balance; 40% of the students are women.

I'll be interested to see just how innovative Olin ends up being. It's hard to be different. There are many external pressures---accrediting agencies, donors, parents---that already have a bunch of ideas about what a college should be. If one makes a college that's too different, then no one will come or give money. But, since Olin is well funded, they won't have as many pressures as other schools. So they have an opportunity to really make a mark.

Like Olin, College of the Atlantic is a young college. But we're teenagers (35 years old), while Olin is just a baby at 5 years of age. My sense as a faculty member and administrator is that COA is always walking a fine line between being innovative and being traditional. One the one hand, we really are different in some important ways. But, on the other hand, we are a college just like lots of other colleges. I don't think this is a bad thing, there's lots that's great about the institution of the college.

Another balance that I think COA and Olin are both trying to find is that between project-based learning and more traditional survey learning. It's great to learn mathematics via case studies. But there's certainly a limit to this. At some point, one probably has to do some basic theory or background that's not directly motivated at the time by a particular application. My sense is that faculty at both institutions are experimenting to find the right balance between these two. My inclination, at least for now, is that case studies work well as initial motivating schemes in introductory settings, and are great as capstone experiences for more advanced students. But somewhere in between one has to "pay some dues." I don't see a way to avoid taking a few classes on calculus and maybe one on linear algebra or differential equations and one on some sort of programming. Of course, these classes are so much fun that they shouldn't really be viewed as "paying dues."

Another thing that struck me about Olin, and reminded me of COA, was both the students and the faculty. No one comes to Olin by default, faculty or students. Students aren't going to apply to Olin just because it's the thing to do, like applying to MIT or the State University in their home state. Students decide to go to Olin because it has something they're looking for: a small size, an innovative curriculum, hands-on learning, etc. (And the fact that it doesn't cost them anything certainly helps, I suppose.) And faculty, I'm guessing, are drawn to Olin by the excitement of creating a new college, by the opportunity to build up a curriculum from scratch at a place that values innovation and has a lot of resources. If faculty wanted to do interesting research and basically ignore undergrads, they'd stay away from Olin.

So, the faculty and students at Olin struck me as a very interesting bunch. I was very impressed with all the faculty and students I met: bright, interesting, kind, and engaged with learning and doing. In this sense Olin reminded me very much of COA.

Olin and COA recently entered into a cooperative agreement wherein students at one school can take up to two terms at the other school. I was psyched about this when we first negotiated it, and now, having visited, I'm even more psyched. I think the two schools are natural partners. We have much in common, and we have some strengths that should complement each other quite nicely. I hope that students take advantage of this opportunity.


Sarah said...

Hi, I'm an Olin student who attended your seminar on racial segregation in US cities, and really enjoyed it. The following day, some students did presentations in our Discrete Math class, and referred to you presentation (their projects had been on Life-type cellular automata). I'll be graduating in May, but I hope that the younger classes will benefit from the partnership with the College of the Atlantic.

Dave said...

Thanks for your comment, and thanks for coming to my talk. I'm glad you found it interesting.

If you know of any Olin students (or non-Olin students) who are interested in COA, please encourage them to contact me.

Good luck this term, and congratulations on being one of Olin's first graduates.