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Changing Course


On an unseasonably warm morning in early spring, dozens of first year engineering students stood around a large, blue plastic swimming pool and held their collective breath as they watched the small boats they had spent six weeks crafting out of foam, float on the water. Each boat was required to carry a certain amount of load, it had to float and it had to be designed with a 120-140 degree of vanishing stability. “The requirements were written in such a way, to get to it would be a challenge …the amount of ballasts and lode were chosen to make the space of possible solutions narrow,” said Mark Somerville, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics.

And yet, with one exception, the small foam boats did exactly what they were supposed to – float.

But this isn’t a story about floating boats, or rather it’s not just about floating boats – this is a story about what it takes to implement change in the curriculum at a college – even one known for innovation and an “everything has an expiration date” catch phrase.

Somerville, together with colleagues Rebecca Christianson, Associate Professor of Applied Physics; Siddhartan Govindasamy, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; John Geddes, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Chris Lee Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, started thinking about the relationship between design and analysis at Olin. “There are a lot of good things about the “making” culture at Olin, but one of the not-so-good things is that making can easily turn into tinkering,” says Somerville.

Olin is known for its emphasis on the design-stream in its curriculum. But along the way the faculty started to realize that while students had tremendous strengths in design, they were less able to pull out the “power tools” of mathematics and science. Somerville says he and his colleagues started asking why. “In the design stream, we carefully designed experiences for our students and they understood a single vocabulary, but in the analysis space that was not happening.”

It quickly became apparent that changing an entire stream of the core curriculum would be a big proposition.

So Somerville and his colleagues began to ask questions: “What student outcomes do we see today, and what do we aspire to?” It was important, according to the faculty, for students to incorporate analysis into their projects at an early stage. “We had worked on this in a variety of ways already by creating individual, stand-alone courses,” says Somerville. But they wanted to do more.  

In the summer of 2015 through January of 2016, the overall vision and project was developed. "The QEA experiment is a designated alternative for Signals and Systems, Dynamics, Linearity 1 and 2 and a foundational physics course; our hope is this experiment will lead to a more coherent ‘analysis stream’ down the road,” said Somerville.

The final “analysis stream experiment” is a 16-credit multi-semester course where students perform “interdisciplinary work with the intent of developing competence and confidence in using analysis skills on authentic problems” according to Somerville and his colleagues.

Thirty-six students gained entry to the course via a lottery and the class recently completed the first module, the floating boats.

The students learned and applied vector calculus and physics to boat design as they sliced and diced blue foam, soda cans, duct tape and a variety of other materials to create the finished product.  “We were really happy about the learning that students did: at the end they were able to propose and defend their designs analytically, and get them right,” said Somerville.

The class is currently working on the second module which involves creating a facial recognition platform.

Over the summer, faculty and students will work together to refine and re-invent the QEA experience for next year.