Thank you so much to everyone’s support of my last post and the start of this blog! It means a lot to me and I hope you continue to enjoy these posts. When I first started thinking about engineering education, it was in response to a USA Today article which focused on Olin College. I did not realize the connection Illinois had with Olin at the time, but I soon learned. Olin College is a remarkable place. Let me explain.
In 1997, Olin College received its charter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the first class did not set foot in it until 2002. In 2007, the school became fully accredited by ABET for electrical and computer, general, and mechanical engineering. It has only approximately 350 undergraduates (1/100 of University of Illinois’s population) and a 16% acceptance rate. But these are just the numbers.
What makes Olin College special?
Olin embodies what engineering education should be.
While most first year undergraduate students are stuck in chemistry and calculus classes, Olin students are designing a device that climbs up a glass wall without leaving a mark. Students use their knowledge of how animals use and apply it to machinery. Their professor knows that students may not have perfected Newton’s laws and the nuances of C++ programing. Students are still allowed to work on a meaningful project that is actually engineering related such as this biomechanics project.
At large universities like Illinois (or really any engineering university with a population over 5,000), the main way for first- and second-year students to be involved in engineering projects is to find a club, research or internship. Clubs and research are wonderful experiences, but it can be hard to be overly involved in design processes on top of going to classes. Internships are fantastic opportunities, but it is very competitive for underclassmen. Many companies would rather have upperclassmen intern for them because they have more technical experience and can be future full time hires if their work is satisfactory. To be fair, most universities are now trying to add more design projects into the first-year experience. This is partially due to ABET requiring constant improvement of the engineering curriculum as well as the NSF forming engineering education coalitions from 1990-2005 which focused on the improvement of the quality of engineering degrees by increasing minority and women enrollment, improving the first year experience, etc. The improvements are still far from perfect though.
I brought up the fact that my current chemical engineering curriculum thus far has been devoid of meaningful problems to a professor in charge of one of chemical engineering’s major senior design projects. He countered this statement by explaining how difficult major projects are to administer and grade, detailing the meetings at seven in the morning with students solely because it was the only time it worked with the students’ schedules. The projects integrated into first and second year classes are not the senior design level courses though. They do not need to be the focus of the whole class. Smaller projects designed to showcase concepts would suffice if they can be devised. If there are issues administering or grading, students can be used to help one another. No one wants to fail. Everyone wants to be proud of what they’ve done and help others with the knowledge they gained. If a project can be devised, I think these simple facts could be used to help assist professors in the task of administering the project. Currently, Illinois is trying to do this using Intrinsic Motivation courses where midterms are replaced with projects students choose based on their interests, with a fair amount of success.
Olin College is making leaps and bounds in engineering education. It’s currently the shining college on a hill for engineering education. The professors at Olin are young enthusiasts with ideas as bright as their students. Olin’s mission is to continue to contribute to engineering education every year of its existence, to never stay static. It wants to make other universities think about engineering education in a different light. Engineering education is not simply basic science and math courses for the first two years and then “real engineering”. No, the focus is on continually learning by throwing students curveballs of new things they may not have learn and watching budding engineers thrive off the challenge, learning and creating. Olin students complete their engineering curriculum with a final project where students work on real industrial problems with companies and partner organizations of Olin (Penn State has a similar program called the Learning Factory.). Projects can be trade secrets of companies such as HP or future student businesses such as a remote controlled bartender with four different drafts of tap.
The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more
How do we add projects without everyone feeling like this?
Olin College has centered its education curriculum on project-based learning, but this is easy to do at such a small school. Other universities, including Illinois, are still trying to implement courses such as Olin. If you are interested in learning more, The Olin Experience is a great article and Illinois does have an exchange program with Olin. Project learning is necessary for engineering education and there needs to be more of it, especially for underclassmen. The only question is: How? How do we replicate a large scale Olin College? Sound off in the comments below. I’d love to hear your opinion! Thanks!

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