Re-engineering Engineering Education

Posted on June 19, 2007  Comments (0)

Re-engineering the engineer, Business 2.0’s take on the Olin education experiment:

You don’t have to spend much time at Olin to sense that something important has changed. Instead of the difficult, and often boring, math and physics classes of the old weed-’em-out-early engineering schools, you find courses like Engineering 2250: User Oriented Collaborative Design. In a typical session, you might encounter kids dressed in pajamas, sweats, shorts, and sandals and an atmosphere that feels more like an art studio than a classroom. On one spring day, a couple of couches and armchairs occupied the center of the room, and a student sat cross-legged atop a table, philosophizing about the lives and demands of makeup artists. Students in UOCD don’t build actual products, touch any technology, or even work a single math problem.

“It doesn’t look like engineering,” admits Benjamin Linder, the assistant professor who helped create the class. Olin’s curriculum is centered on courses like UOCD and Design Nature — the class that produced those climbing critters. Miller, 57, a thin, bald, engaging administrator who is prone to analogies, likens the traditional curriculum to a music school where students learn history and theory but never touch their instruments. Olin, by contrast, introduces project-based courses to its students early and often.

Olin also insists that students spend more than a quarter of their time studying business and entrepreneurship, humanities, and social sciences. “Olin really bends over backward to get the students to recognize the interactions between these disciplines,” says Constance Bowe, who studied the college as a researcher at Harvard Medical International. To help instill the entrepreneurial spirit, the college created the Olin Foundry, in which the school houses and partially funds as many as a dozen student startups.

Students also experience the business world firsthand through Olin’s senior consulting program for engineering. This year 12 corporations — including Boeing, Boston Scientific, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM — paid Olin a combined $700,000 to have groups of five seniors serve as consultants for a full academic year on some of the companies’ pressing technological and engineering problems. “By the time they’re seniors, they’re nearly operating at a professional level,” says David Barrett, the Olin associate professor who heads the program. “It gives them authenticity they wouldn’t get in a classroom.”

Great stuff. Related: Innovative Science and Engineering Higher EducationA New Engineering EducationEngineering and EntrepreneurismWhat do Engineers Need To Know?

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