Olin, an Exercise in Design

In the midst of shoving almost everything I own into two 25 gallon containers, I finally figured out Olin. When it comes to nostalgia, I'm about as reflective as a lead brick. I wasn't looking back at two awesome semesters when I made my discovery (though they were awesome, difficult, but awesome), I was looking at the giant pile of papers on my desk. Papers that were not going to fit in my storage tubs no matter the amount of shoving, jumping, or duct tape applied. Not too far down in the pile was a journal article on education that solidified my understanding of this college.

Until recently, Olin just didn't "click" in my mind. Sure, I've heard our spiel, Olin is different, Olin is engaging, Olin is hands-on project based learning, Olin is a body of some of the coolest students you will ever meet, Olin is holistic, top-notch, education for a new generation of engineers. Yeah, I love all that, but it just didn't seem to tie together. How was it that building hoppers and children's toys in Design Nature during my first semester contributed to the becoming an engineer for the future? Why the switch back to a few traditional courses? Why do so many Oliners harp about accreditation and the changes it has made to Olin?

Luckily, I was intrigued by and started reading a paper lying in that pile of dehydrated wood-pulp. The article was entitled Drowning in Method, Thirsty for Values: A Call for Cultural Inquiry by our own Dr. Jon Stolk. Going through the paper I kept reading how the methods for improved engineering education exist, but the values of the people involved were not developed.

Values, needs, goals... people... these are terms all Oliners associate user-oriented design...

design depth...

SCOPE projects; determining the needs of the liaison...

UOCD (User-Oriented Collaborative Design, an essential part of the Olin curriculum)

And then it struck me: Design is the thread the ties Olin College together. Design runs right through the curriculum. Or perhaps more, user-oriented design is the fiber from which this school is built.

Here is how I make sense of Olin. Olin is different from traditional colleges in a multitude of ways, but the foundation of it all is user-oriented design, or perhaps more accurately, user-involved design. Looking back at the facts, it seems obvious; eight years ago thirty undergraduate-age students designed the Olin curriculum. Thirty students. Not graduates, industry leaders, professors, or entrepreneurs, thirty students *. Olin is the amazing college that it is because when the F. W. Olin Foundation started the experiment to advance engineering education, they decided not to do it from the top down. Instead of going to accreditation organizations, or instating a more rigorous curriculum, they let thirty students determine what they needed in an undergraduate engineering education. To my knowledge, this is the only time this has happened in engineering education.

Now many of Olin's idiosyncrasies make sense. I started my education here designing swimming toys for children because it is a reasonable introduction to user-oriented design. I will take User Oriented Collaborate Design (another cornerstone of an Olin education) to further understand users, to take context into account, to empathize, design, and make truly relevant products. SCOPE (our senior engineering capstone in which industry partners contract teams of students for real engineering tasks) makes sense, too. There is more to design then end-user product design (UOCD), other stakeholders and engineering firms are the part of most project contexts, and SCOPE makes this real to its participants.

The occasional dislike of accreditation also makes sense. Nothing seems more top-down than the requirement that we have grades, that all mechanical engineering students take certain core classes, etc. From the users perspective, holding an ABET certified degree opens many doors, but it impinges on some of our experiments.

Perhaps there is too much focus on what Olin is. In terms of being the experiment for engineering education, the way we went about designing ourselves, and the way we continually redesign ourselves is the interesting part. Sure we could be a formula for other colleges to follow, but we could also just spread the design seed that crystallized Olin College. Somehow I think the second option is the way to go.


* Though the Olin "Partners" were not graduates, industry leaders, professors, entrepreneurs, or pedagogy experts, I have to give all these groups due credit. Calls for improved engineering education would not have come without these groups. Olin College wouldn't exist without industry groups like Olin Chemical. Nor is its really fair to say that the Partners alone designed the curriculum; that would certainly shorthand the excellent faculty members the F. W. Olin Foundation brought on board. But I think it was essential for Olin College that the users of the education, students, were highly involved in designing the college.

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