Impact-Centered Education: 2022-2027
The groundwork for the Olin College Strategic Plan: Impact-Centered Education stretches all the way back to 2018. Planning began in earnest with the arrival of President Barabino who, in January 2021, shared a Vision for Olin with the Olin Community.
Throughout, the process was highly iterative and engaged extensive input from Olin community members, including from faculty, staff, students, alumni, the Board of Trustees, the Academic Life Leadership Team, and the College Council. The process was facilitated by a Strategic Advisory Team comprised of faculty and staff.
As we look forward to the next decade for Olin College, we remind ourselves of our origins. The F.W. Olin Foundation’s visionary gift was accompanied by the extraordinary vision outlined in the College’s founding precepts:
“With respect to the Foundation’s reasons for establishing the College, let it be said that the Foundation does not seek to establish a generic undergraduate engineering college—one that will simply offer programs similar to many others around the country. Olin College is intended to be different—not for the mere sake of being different—but to be an important and constant contributor to the advancement of engineering education in America and throughout the world and, through its graduates, to do good for humankind.”
These words serve as our North Star and articulate the unique reason for our existence: to contribute to the advancement of engineering education. They also highlight characteristics that we hold foundational: being different in service of the simultaneous imperatives to innovate, to make important and constant contributions, and to do good for humankind through our graduates.
Olin’s first decades responded to the pressing challenges at the time of our founding. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and others argued that engineering education needed to incorporate more design, address teamwork and communication skills, shift from a “sit-and-listen” to an engaged and hands-on experience, and address the profession’s gender gap. Over the last two decades Olin has not only addressed these precipitating challenges but contributed to a broader change throughout engineering education at large. Engineering education changes that were thought impossible in 1995 are now underway within institutions across the country, and Olin’s innovations and contributions are recognized globally.
The problems of today differ from those that prompted Olin’s founding three decades ago. A new set of issues press upon the NSF and other thought leaders focused on engineering education: we must broaden participation in engineering, and we must address the societal challenges that transcend disciplinary boundaries. Simultaneously, those in higher education broadly, as well as here at Olin, are contending with the real challenges related to the high cost of education.
Olin was founded to contribute to changing engineering education in an ongoing, relevant, and significant way. As we prepare for “important and constant” contributions ahead within the context of engineering education, we are driven to respond to these pressing challenges.
Engineering for Everyone
This strategic plan is grounded in a vision for the future of engineering that is captured in three words: Engineering for Everyone.
Engineering for Everyone has two embedded meanings. First, it means engineering education needs to be for everyone. Today the NSF calls for broadening participation because engineering education systematically excludes large groups of people, to the detriment of individuals, societies, and economies. To address this challenge, engineering education needs to be welcoming to, and enable the success of, people from all backgrounds.
Engineering for Everyone also means that engineering as a profession must serve everyone. We need to go beyond a disciplinary perspective of engineering, and beyond the definition of engineering as “using science to solve technical problems.” Engineers need to work across disciplinary boundaries to ask not only “How might we build it?,” but also “Who is it for?,” “Why are building it?,” “Who else is impacted?” and “Should we build it at all?”—and to develop the disciplinary humility necessary to recognize the limits of engineering and to collaborate with experts in other fields. Engineering education must not only focus on producing good workers, but also on developing good people and good citizens.
Olin’s founding precepts articulate a compelling and exciting argument for why Olin exists.
Our vision of Engineering for Everyone takes that argument forward, responding to today’s grand challenges in engineering education and in the world.”
Gilda A. Barabino, Ph.D.
President, Olin College
Advancing Engineering for Everyone through Impact-centered Education
The vision of Engineering for Everyone demands a new kind of engineer. One who embodies the following:
- PERSONAL IDENTITY & INCLINATION TO SERVE society and the planet, not just themselves and their employer.
- PROFESSIONAL & TECHNICAL SKILLS & ATTITUDES to solve problems by understanding people’s needs, generating creative solutions, and thinking and acting entrepreneurially.
- SYSTEMS THINKERS who appreciate and understand perspectives other than their own, approach situations with humility, and are willing to question whether engineering is the right approach to a given situation.
- REPRESENT THE DIVERSITY OF TALENT in society, including the talent that has been historically excluded from engineering.
Engineering education today is largely failing to achieve these outcomes.
Our strategic plan focuses on advancing the vision of Engineering for Everyone by developing new educational approaches, and by working with others to create transformation outside of Olin. This strategy builds on our learnings and approach over the College’s first twenty years but shifts the focus of our efforts to address current challenges. Our numbers are small, so this work is premised on the idea that our strength is in the work that we do with people outside Olin, the educational changes we help to create, and the change agents and leaders who graduate from Olin.
There is enormous work to be done in defining, developing, and refining the kind of education that develops this new kind of engineer. But, based on our experience over the last two decades, we have a strong sense of what it might look like. We propose that engineering education needs to shift in the direction of Impact-centered Education: education that is focused on not only preparing students to have impact but also on engaging students in creating authentic impact and in making the world a better place. Core to this idea is the proposition that the best way to learn is to do, and the best way to develop an identity as someone who is committed to making the world a better place is to purposefully engage with making the world a better place.
Impact-centered Education decenters both the faculty member and the student, instead aligning both around purpose, meaning, and community through making impact—together. Key ideas include:
A central curricular concept in Impact-centered Education is that every graduate should have multiple experiences that focus on doing something that matters to someone outside of Olin and doing so in a way that is focused on making an impact. Such an approach decenters the individual and develops a student’s capacity for execution and completion – while building the student’s identity as someone who can create value in the world and who has the responsibility to do so.
Engineering graduates must ultimately be able to do the technical work of engineering, as well as be able to collaborate and communicate effectively. While the approach to developing these skills might change in an Impact-centered Education, they nonetheless must be addressed rigorously.
The complex challenges of today’s world require an ability to integrate perspectives from the technical to the humanistic. Preparing graduates who can confront these challenges requires a transdisciplinary approach that rigorously aligns all aspects of the curriculum – not just the technical.
Impact-centered education has benefits for, and benefits from a diverse community. Research shows that diverse teams are more effective than non-diverse teams in making a positive impact in the world. A diverse community is critical for developing students’ understanding and appreciation of perspectives other than their own. At the same time, there is evidence that educational experiences that are more directly connected to making the world a better place are more attractive, welcoming, and inclusive for students from diverse backgrounds.
We know that a holistic education that develops students’ identities, as well as their knowledge, requires not just a curriculum but also a community that is dedicated to learning and growth and that values and respects the perspectives of all community members—a culture in which everyone is a learner, and everyone is an educator.
A key part of Impact-centered Education is the extent to which it enables -- both at an individual level and at an institutional level – increased focus, efficiency, and impact. This applies at the level of an individual faculty member who might align external impact work with work developing students, using a single set of activities to accomplish both goals. By the same token, at the institutional level, Impact-centered Education enables a more robust business model and suggests ways to align our mission of external educational directly with students’ educational experiences at Olin.
The idea of Impact-centered Education is deeply connected to Olin’s learnings over the past two decades. This is a plan that builds on Olin’s history and strengths: our emphasis on a human-centered approach to engineering; our early commitment to gender equity; our willingness to try something new, make mistakes, and learn from them; our position as a leading innovator in engineering education. It also is a plan that will require Olin to grow and learn. Making progress will require balancing hubris and humility, partnering with and learning from those who know more and have done more. And it will require activating and engaging all parts of the Olin community—from students to staff to faculty to friends to alumni.
Let’s begin the work!
Engineering for Everyone.
Transforming engineering education toward a world in which engineering serves everyone.
Engineering for impact: thriving for all.
At Olin, we are engineering for impact: we strive to create a community and contribute to a world in which all can thrive.
As we pursue our vision of Engineering for Everyone, we work intentionally to reinforce the values to which we aspire. We reflect on who we are now and who we want to be and strive to embody the ideals we embrace.
We commit to serving the Olin community and society at large by enacting our values of equity and justice, trust, learning and growth, sustainability, and collaboration for the benefit of others, especially those who are most in need.
As a community, we:
Fight for equity and justice.
Offer our trust and earn the trust of others through our words and actions.
Continually strive to learn, to grow, and to share what we have learned.
Protect and sustain our natural, built, and financial resources so that they might equitably benefit future generations.
Collaborate; find meaning and joy in connection with others.
The plan is organized into four overarching goals, supported by objectives and actions. These were all developed via community engagement and discussions with individual departments. Some actions have begun; some build on and continue work that has been happening for years; some are only in the earliest planning stages, and some will be identified as we move forward. A strategic implementation group who reports to the president will monitor progress on these goals and objectives as we move forward.
Baked into this plan are underlying assumptions about what Olin aspires to be and do. The plan is built around Olin's commitment to ongoing innovation, to being an important and constant contributor – that we will strive to do innovative and important work that justifies and strengthens our reputation as a global leader in engineering education. The plan also assumes that we will continue to recruit fabulous students to be part of this endeavor, and that the education those students get during their time at Olin will prepare them – both technically and personally - to be exceptional engineering innovators and leaders. The idea of Engineering for Everyone, the concept of an Impact-centered Education, and the goals and objectives that constitute the plan will enable us to remain true to these assumptions.
Download Impact-Centered Education: 2022-2027
Business and operating models align with our values and both enable and leverage Impact-centered Education.
A sustainable model for Olin’s operation is foundational to our plan. This will not happen overnight; rather it will require investment at the outset, and careful monitoring and course correction as we move forward. To begin, we must invest to develop new and expanded approaches to revenue generation—both philanthropic and earned—that integrate with and leverage Impact-centered Education. We will reconsider our approaches to financial aid, both to increase access and equity and to align with a shift from student-as-consumer to student-as-participant. We will invest in infrastructure and processes that enable us to operate efficiently and effectively. Finally, to make true and transformative long-term impact, we must consider long-term financial sustainability alongside other forms of sustainability (as defined by the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, summarized in the terms people, planet, prosperity, peace, partnership).
An impact-centered curriculum that prepares and inclines graduates to serve people, society, and the planet.
We envision an “impact-centered curriculum” that builds on Olin’s strengths of innovation, entrepreneurship, interdisciplinarity, and project-based learning, extending these ideas with a greater focus on preparing graduates who have the necessary creativity, humility, perspective, skills, and personal identity to realize the founding precepts’ call to “do good in the world.” Our vision of an impact-centered curriculum includes a deepened focus on real-world experiences that are aimed at creating impact—educational experiences that produce outcomes that matter to people outside of Olin and that embody the vision of “engineering serving everyone.” This kind of real-world engagement is coupled with a transdisciplinary approach that goes beyond interdisciplinarity to intentionally develop skills and mindsets needed to bridge and transcend disciplines, such as systems thinking, an appreciation of different perspectives, and the humility to recognize that engineering is not always the right solution. Such a curriculum will require external partnerships as well as shifts in how faculty approach their own impact.
Community and culture align with the pursuit of Impact-centered Education.
Recognizing an impact-centered education requires far more than just an impact-centered curriculum, we also must attend to the whole of student experience, as well as to what kind of place Olin is and how Olin functions. We will work toward becoming a diverse community—students and employees. We will more deeply integrate our approach to the student experience from the dorm to the classroom to the world. We will work intentionally to create structures and policies that align with our values and that build a shared sense of purpose and belonging. As a community, we will develop the necessary knowledge, skills, and organizational structures to pursue the vision of Impact-centered Education.
Policies, procedures, and structures enable ongoing learning, improvement, and transformation both internally and externally.
Creating an Impact-centered Education and advancing our mission of broader educational transformation both require that we create curricular and operational structures that enable ongoing experimentation and learning and that facilitate our connection to and collaboration with others who aspire to transform engineering education. We must be able to conduct educational experiments intentionally, and to capture and synthesize learnings, both so that we can feed Olin’s experimentation and so that we can effectively translate our insights and share with others. Driving change will also require building relationships, and an approach to experimentation and learning that will be transparent, collaborative, and humble.