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Faculty of the Future

New Olin Faculty Bring Commitment to Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries, Rethinking Engineering Education

When Erhardt Graeff was finishing up his doctorate at MIT and considering career paths, academia was only one of many options he considered. But when he heard there was an opening at Olin College he jumped at the chance to apply.

“It was the one place I could see myself teaching and continuing to grow within academia, where I felt like my work at the intersection of civic engagement, social science, design and digital technology could contribute to all facets of the college's intellectual life and central mission,” says Graeff.

Graeff is part of one of the largest influxes of new faculty Olin has seen since its founding years. Three new full-time faculty are joining Olin this fall; one more joins in January and two more in September 2019. Two full-time visiting faculty members (two-year appointments) also became part of the campus community this fall, as well as a first-ever “creative in reference” who will work closely with students to blend art and technology. 

All of them would likely express sentiments similar to Graeff’s — they are distinguished by their discipline-crossing engagements and commitment to Olin’s mission of changing engineering education.

That change is seen as more and more necessary as educators have struggled over the last couple of decades to revamp engineering education to meet a globalized society’s need for broadly educated engineers who have not only technical knowledge, but also communication skills, an entrepreneurial mindset and a desire to do good in the world. 

Graeff is a good example of the new kind of faculty member needed to deliver this field-spanning education. He holds degrees in information technology, international studies and media arts and sciences. His research delves into the design of technologies for civic and political engagement — issues that feature very prominently in the public debate these days.

“I hope the students who take my courses understand that all technical challenges are also social challenges, that they need ethical and social lenses to do their work well, and that they have a responsibility to the public good as citizens which crosses their personal and professional lives,” says Graeff.

New faculty member Kelsey Houston-Edwards is another discipline crosser. She holds a doctorate and master’s degree in mathematics from Cornell, and did an interdisciplinary baccalaureate degree at Reed College in math and philosophy. She is also interested in STEM engagement and communication, having hosted 44 episodes of the PBS Infinite Series exploring college-level mathematics.

Also joining Olin this fall is Carrie Nugent, a physicist and planetary scientist whose TED talk, “Adventures of an Asteroid Hunter,” has been viewed over one million times. Nugent, who holds a doctorate from UCLA, styles herself as “an enthusiastic science communicator and firm believer that space exploration is for everyone.” 

“I have an interdisciplinary background spanning physics, geology, data science and astronomy,” says Nugent. “I've never quite fit into a single department at other institutions, so I'm delighted to be in a place with no departments at all.”

She adds: “I'm looking forward to teaching fundamental concepts and techniques via space-based projects. I'm itching to begin research with students. Discovering near-Earth asteroids is great fun.”

Finding faculty with such unusual credentials who are also enthusiastic about Olin’s mission required a new kind of hiring process, according to Vincent Manno, Olin’s Provost. Frustrated by previous faculty searches that sometimes yielded candidates who arrived on campus only to discover they didn’t fit well with Olin’s culture, the college instituted a new, multi-layered recruitment process aimed at identifying early on the candidates who would be a good fit and be energized by the goal of reforming engineering education.

The process culminated in a unique “Faculty Candidates’ Week” modeled after Olin’s annual Candidates’ Weekends for prospective students. Sixteen candidates traveled to Olin’s Needham campus in spring 2018 for activities such as collaborative teaching and get-acquainted sessions with students and faculty.

The fact that Olin was not seeking to simply fill disciplinary slots, but was looking for people from a broad variety of fields who were team players, gave the event a non-competitive feel that allowed the candidates to experience what it would be like to teach at Olin.

“The candidates’ week was unlike any other interview I've ever been on,” says Nugent. “But by the end Olin had a good sense of who I was, and I had a good feel for Olin.” 

Provost Manno was pleased with the outcome. “The process was instrumental in getting the right people,” notes Manno. “To a person, they are bringing something new.”

The result was the hiring of a group of faculty with a broad range of backgrounds distributed well among the fields represented by Olin’s current faculty.

“In a small faculty like Olin’s you wind up with background gaps across people,” says Manno. “The fact that we could add five or six people who bring relevant and new qualifications to fill those gaps and make connections is really exciting.”