Improving Engineering Education

On our Science and Engineering blog I just posted on the Olin Engineering Education Experiment. It is a great story of doing things differently.

The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering was founded with a donation of over $400 million and opened to students in 2002. All students get a full tuition scholarship. Interesting article: The Olin Experiment by Erico Guizzo gives an excellent overview of the different focus of the school:

Olin’s aim is to flip over the traditional “theory first, practice later” model and make students plunge into hands-on engineering projects starting on day one. Instead of theory-heavy lectures, segregated disciplines, and individual efforts, Olin champions design exercises, interdisciplinary studies, and teamwork.

To some extent this is something a number of schools are attempting to do. One, of many examples – Princeton University: “At the same time, the center is improving students’ technical education by exposing them to real engineering projects throughout their four years, through internships, entrepreneurial opportunities and multidisciplinary courses.” – Princeton Center for Innovation in Engineering Education). The nature of Olin’s methods do seem to be a qualitative different, not just a matter of degree.

In most traditional schools, students sit through separate calculus, physics, and chemistry lectures during the first two years and have only a few canned-type laboratories. Olin doesn’t eliminate each and every “chalk and talk” lecture; some professors do teach that way. But Olin’s curriculum, unlike conventional ones, tightly integrates the basic disciplines with practical projects.

This requires radically changing the normal university education model. To me this is definitely a different versus better (see last post) improvement effort. It will be interesting to see the success they achieve going forward. It almost makes me want to go back to school.

Building a Better Engineer by David Wessel:

“If they become another good engineering school, they will have failed,” says Woodie Flowers, an MIT professor advising Olin. “The issue is to do it differently enough and to do it in way that will be exportable” to other colleges.

That goal increases dramatically the potential benefits. If they truly focus on not just doing a great job at their school but exporting good ideas to others the benefits of success will be multiplied.