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He's Baack!


Jon Stolk, professor of materials science and engineering education at Olin and a key figure in Olin’s curricular innovation efforts, spent the last academic year on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas as the executive director of the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education. He is back at Olin now and looking forward to teaching and contributing to an effort to help to plan out the future of Olin’s external engagements. He sat down with The Wire to talk about his hopes and plans now that he’s back on campus. This is an edited version of the conversation.

The Wire: You don’t have any teaching duties this semester. So what are you going to be working on now that you’re back?

Stolk: I’m on this team now with [Associate Dean] Jessica Townsend, [Collaboratory Director] Sharon Breitbart and [Associate Professor] Jason Woodard, which I think will grow to include many more faculty and staff and students.  We’ve been asked to do some thinking and some development work around Olin’s external impact.

TW: Why do you think you’ve been asked to serve on this faculty committee?

My time at Olin falls in three phases.  The first phase was exploration, or experimentation.  You know, just getting out there, trying stuff—it was a mess.  But we got to try a lot of really bold ideas.  I then personally went through a phase of trying to understand what we had just done, and that marked my transition from doing technical research to doing educational research.  I really wanted to deeply understand things like self-direction and student motivation and the role of different pedagogical approaches in supporting different types of student outcomes. But the third phase was where Olin began to realize that some of the stuff we were doing might be of interest to the rest of the world. 

So I’m back here to refocus on that, that third phase, thinking bigger and more systemically about Olin as an institution, what is its role in this world as a catalyst for change, an enabler of change, a supporter of change, a facilitator, whatever word you like. 

TW: How has your previous work at Olin prepared you for this role?

It’s kind of nice right now that my grant work, my research, in which we started studying things like student motivation at the course level, now we’re getting a lot of data to illustrate the effect of higher-level, contextual-level issues—things such as faculty mindsets and faculty intentions and goals around motivation. Also, what’s happening at the department level in terms of organizational structures and policies, what’s happening at the institution in terms of learning culture, and what’s happening nationally or even globally in education. So in my research we’re starting to turn our sights from the short-term activity-based motivational responses, to building out a model for the bigger systemic influences on these student outcomes. We want to get to a point where we can intervene, shape, and design for something that is different than what we’re currently seeing.

TW: What do you want to do with this higher-level understanding?

My goal is getting something into the hands or hearts or minds of faculty and administrators at the college level that enables them to think and feel differently about education, about learning and learners. The not-so-secret agenda is to broaden this view of what engineering learning is to include things like people—human-centered design, collaboration, intrinsic drive, societal need, ethical decision-making—the stuff that we talk about at Olin.

TW: What particularly excites you about being back on the Olin campus?

There are specific things that I’m excited about right now.  One is what I just was talking about, this change in perspective from thinking about what it is we’re doing as course or curricular-level design, to thinking about educational system design.

And I think what I’m seeing at Olin now, what I’m really excited about is, we’re starting to recognize that there are things in the system which can either enable, support, and promote, or hinder, destroy, and thwart these really cool ideas.  And I think some attention at Olin now is being shifted toward that. And we see changes at Olin that are aligned with that.  We changed our reappointment and promotion process, which, from my perspective, was one of those systemic things. We’re thinking differently about organizational structures. 

So seeing the educational system as a whole, and being able to go from these abstract ideas of what might we like to see in terms of organizational structures and policies and values and beliefs, and being able to drop that down to the very concrete—what does it mean for the day-to-day course design?  I think at some point we’ll be able to kind of iterate from abstract to concrete with a lot of skill and dexterity and agility.