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Olin Receives $400,000 Gift for Exploring Innovation in Engineering Education

Professors Rebecca Christianson and John Geddes Chosen as Inaugural Explorers 

Thanks to a strategic gift from Dr. Sunlin Chou, a retired Intel R&D leader and emeritus Olin Trustee, two senior faculty members at Olin will be able to devote time exploring and documenting how to fuel future curricular innovation. Associate Professor of Applied Physics Rebecca Christianson and Professor of Applied Mathematics John Geddes were chosen as the inaugural Exploration Fellows or “Explorers” and will coordinate their efforts through the next year-and-a-half toward probing bold and innovative academic ideas that have the potential to transform undergraduate education at Olin and beyond.

“The Exploration Fund intends to turbocharge Olin’s curricular innovation by supporting long-range research on ways to pursue and accelerate major improvements in engineering education,” said Dr. Chou.  “I greatly enjoyed my interactions with the Exploration Fellows and look forward to exciting results from their full-time efforts.”

Professors Christianson and Geddes have already started identifying promising ideas and methods as part of a May 2018 retreat of Olin faculty, staff and students where they posited two forward thinking questions. They asked the approximately 60 attendees to sketch out what the world might look like in 2050 and how Olin might shape and respond to that world, and to travel back through time to imagine how Olin might create that future state. The artifacts generated were varied and rich in content and touched on a range of issues, including the need to respond to non-traditional learning communities and a more diverse and growing population. They are currently compiling and analyzing the results, looking for insights and plan to share with others for further feedback.

“We are identifying promising ideas and methods, and experimenting and evaluating those ideas in order to identify the boldest and highest-impact concepts,” said Geddes. “Our goal in the next year and a half is to shape them into more actionable and concrete forms.”

Geddes and Christianson also are exploring effective ways to communicate theresults, solicit feedback and encourage others to make use of the acquired knowledge. Their experience will potentially help Olin to integrate exploratory research into its system for educational innovation.  The aspirational vision is that the Exploration Fund started by Dr. Chou will yield compelling results and warrant future investment to sustain it.

“We are not looking for incremental improvements but big ideas to test out,” said Christianson. “Not only are the outcomes important but also documenting the process of how we got there and looking for opportunities to replicate and scale-up the results.”

Drs. Christianson and Geddes are veteran education innovators at Olin. They were faculty leaders of a cross-disciplinary team who completely re-hauled a major part of the core curriculum for first- and second-year students with a course called Quantitative Engineering Analysis (QEA). It was designed to enhance students’ analytical skills by applying theoretical knowledge to real problems. Students learned to use a host of analytical tools to develop software and hardware without relying on iterative testing.   QEA was run as a design experiment with a cohort of students, replacing four current mathematics, science and engineering courses.  The course has attracted significant attention from faculty at other institutions.

 “QEA represents the type of curricular innovation intrinsic to Olin’s mission to catalyze change in engineering education that focuses on cross-disciplinary approaches to make positive change in the world,” said Olin Provost Vincent Manno. “The Exploration Fund is allowing us to relax our year-to-year operating constraints and think more boldly about how we can create these transformative learning experiences.”