Building a better engineer

Read - October 18, 2007
Who said engineers don’t have heart? There’s a school cultivating the hearts of engineers. Have a look.

By John Schwartz

Published: September 29, 2007 in International Herald Tribune

When nonengineers think about engineering, it’s usually because something has gone wrong: collapsing levees in New Orleans, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the Chernobyl and Bhopal disasters. In the follow-up investigations, it often comes out that some of the engineers involved knew something was wrong. But too few spoke up or pushed back – and those who did were ignored.

This professional deficiency is something the new, tuition-free Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering wants to fix. At its tiny campus in Needham, Massachusetts, outside Boston, Olin is trying to design a new kind of engineer, the kind its founders and staff believe that industry, and the world, need now.

The five-year-old school, which has received good notices from groups that rank U.S. colleges and universities, is being closely watched by companies that hire engineers to design the future. Its novel approach should be of interest to countries like France, which traditionally have looked to an engineering education to shape their business leaders.

Most engineering schools stress subjects like differential calculus and physics, and their graduates are likely to fit the stereotype of a socially awkward number-cruncher. Richard Miller, the president of Olin, 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 said during a recent interview in his office on campus, to make engineers “comfortable as citizens and not just calculating machines.” The school, which opened its doors to students in 2002 and was accredited in December 2006 after graduating its first class, stresses creativity, teamwork and entrepreneurship – and, in no small part, courage. “I don’t see how you can make a positive difference in the world,” Miller said, “if you’re not motivated to take a tough stand and do the right thing.”

That message gets hammered home in the classroom, according to Benjamin Linder, an assistant professor of design and mechanical engineering. Linder pushes his students not to just follow instructions. “Engineering,” he said, “has traditionally been focused on doing it right, but not on what’s the right thing to do.” That means designing products that are environmentally friendly and that respond to the needs of the people using them and not just to what the purchasing department wants. He urges his students to be more than team players. The goal, Linder said with utter earnestness, is to teach fledgling engineers “how to be bold.”

Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research at Google, said he 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, adding, “The skills they are trying to develop are very meaningful in environments that we try to build.”

Olin College started with what would amount to institutional suicide. Named for its founder, a munitions manufacturer who died in 1951, the F. W. Olin Foundation had spent nearly six decades giving money to dozens of campuses for buildings, much of it for teaching engineering and science. In 1993, however, the board of the foundation floated the idea of doing something that well-financed organizations rarely do: go out of business.

Lawrence Milas, the president of the foundation, said he had grown frustrated with a process that helped schools but did not change engineering education, which, he said, was in a rut. He wondered whether it might be a good idea to fold the foundation and devote its assets to the creation of a new college.

A conversation with an executive of the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government-financed body that supports education in the sciences, persuaded Milas that his idea was sound, so he went back to the Olin Foundation and started to push. Eventually, the foundation agreed to give more than $400 million to create a whole new engineering school.

When Milas recruited Miller, then dean of engineering at the University of Iowa, in 1998 to be president of the new college, he told him that the endowment would be large enough that the school would charge little or no tuition. “The primary job of the president wasn’t going to be out there raising money,” Miller said. “It meant that you could spend your time doing the important work of trying to rethink engineering education.”

Even more important, Milas told him that he wanted to create a nimble institution that could continually reinvent itself and honor change.

“How can you possibly provide everything they need in their knapsack of education to sustain them in their 40-year career?” Miller asked. “I think those days are over. Learning the skill of how to learn is more important than trying to fill every possible cup of knowledge in every possible discipline.”

It is not easy to build a college from scratch, although, to listen to Miller, it is a lot of fun. Miller recruited a leadership team and the school invited 30 students (out of more than 600 applicants) to come in 2001 for a “partner year” in which they would help develop and test the curriculum.

They helped come up with Olin’s DNA: project-based learning. The first students built projects like golf-ball cannons: they worked with faculty members to master principles of physics, materials science and mathematical modeling on the fly as they planned and built machines that could shoot a golf ball 300 yards, or about 100 meters.

After securing agreements with other colleges in the Boston area to provide some business and humanities classes, the school officially opened in 2002. Its method of instruction has more in common with a liberal arts college, where the focus is on learning how to learn, than with a standard engineering curriculum.

Though Olin charges no tuition, room and board is about $12,000 a year, which is in line with the full cost of a year at European and U.S. state universities and way under the nearly $50,000 total charged at top private institutions like Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Olin students are sharp, and they love the education. Alison Lee, a recent graduate now in South Korea on a Fulbright scholarship, said the process of solving seemingly insurmountable problems was an Olin rite of passage, like the project that was given to her and her fellow students: build a robot that can climb a wall. When it worked, she said, “it was the moment of realization that I could do anything.” (In a field where female students are traditionally scarce, more than 40 percent of Olin’s students are women.)

The problem-based process is good preparation for the real world, said another student, Meenakshi Vembusubramanian. “You’re not going to go into a job and get a thermodynamics problem set,” she said. “You’re going to have a problem that’s badly defined.”

As part of the school’s broader curriculum, Miller created and teaches a course in leadership and ethics, bringing in whistle-blowers to talk about the pressures they are under and the importance of taking a stand. One of them was James Ashton, a former executive of General Dynamics who alerted the U.S. government to waste and fraud in the company’s submarine division.

Such people, Miller said, describe the accumulation of “seemingly inconsequential decisions along the way” that lead people into ethical crises – something not all schools teach but that students entering the real world need. Some within the engineering profession are drawn to this side of Olin. Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, applauded the efforts of teachers like Linder to encourage questioning and pushing back.

Bea, who worked

on investigations into the New Orleans disaster and the loss of the Columbia, said, “We are, as engineers, taught to be servants. We’re trained to do things, not to tell you that we can’t.”

But not every company is Google, and Miller acknowledged that he was concerned that few of the class of 2006 were going on to graduate study in engineering or jobs in the field.

Some graduates have already told him that in their first jobs in industry they feel like mere cogs in a machine. In some companies, he said, the freethinking products of Olin might have trouble fitting in.“

Does industry want people like that?” Miller said. “I think that’s a very good question, but I think this goes beyond what industry wants. This is the right thing to do. This is what industry needs.”

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