A Big STEP toward Engineering with a Purpose

An arrangement of multi-colored sticky notes adorn a classroom wall.

An arrangement of multi-colored sticky notes adorn the classroom wall, part of a STEP brainstorming session. Photo by Paige Brown.

May 11, 2022

Olin’s creative, triple-wide course called STEP is revolutionizing how students learn and make.

This semester, 23 Olin students and four faculty embarked on a new experiment together—working side-by-side to tackle a “messy,” real-world challenge from start to finish.

“Social Technology Enterprise with Purpose,” or STEP, is a unique learning experience being piloted at Olin in spring 2022. Amounting to 12 credits, STEP is intended to be taken alongside just one other course, allowing students to focus most of their time to this work.

Team-taught by Sam Michalka, Alessandra Ferzoco, Paul Ruvolo, and Caitrin Lynch, STEP was envisioned as a way to help better prepare students to make positive changes in the world by reimagining the scope of a college course and the relationship between faculty and students.

In STEP, students and faculty work as teammates on a project that combines user-centered design, wearable computing, and machine learning to create impactful technology. The faculty learn alongside students as co-creators, not classroom leaders, and students take ownership of every aspect of their work, as well as their own learning outcomes and goals.

Three members of the Olin College STEP Course talk in a classroom.

Professors Sam Michalka and Alessandra Ferzoco talk during an April 2022 STEP class. Photo by Paige Brown.

“’Learn by doing’ is a big motto here at Olin, and that carries through in your classes and projects,” says Eamon Ito-Fisher ’23, a participant in this year’s pilot STEP class.

“STEP takes that Olin philosophy to the extreme, combining all of the components we’re learning in different classes—choosing a user group, identifying a problem, designing solutions, building protypes—into one mega-class you can devote a lot of attention to.”

Olin student Eamon Ito-Fisher talks in front of a blackboard during a recent STEP class.

Eamon Ito-Fisher ’23, a participant in the pilot STEP class, talks to members of the course.

The STEP team is building wearable technology that enables the blind and visually impaired to interact with their smart devices in an inconspicuous and possibly hands-free way.

“For many people, using modern smart technologies (like phones) is cumbersome,” said Ruvolo in a recent presentation to the Board of Trustees. “What if we build something specifically designed for them, but did so using a universal design lens so that anyone might derive value from the technology we create?”

Paul Ruvolo, Associate Professor of Computer Science, in blueish grey shirt, smiles for a photo.

“For many people, using modern smart technologies (like phones) is cumbersome."

“What if we build something specifically designed for them, but did so using a universal design lens so that anyone might derive value from the technology we create?”

Paul Ruvolo, Associate Professor


Throughout the course of the semester, students have brainstormed, problem-solved, and created an app with three different controllers: 1) a simple remote that allows the user to complete actions on their devices without looking at the screen; 2) a wearable ring that allows users to interact with the phone using discreet motions; and 3) a quiet speech tool that uses signal processing and machine learning to control the user’s device.

Wearable rings made by participants in the Olin College STEP course.

A variety of wearable rings that are used in part to allow users to interact with a phone using discreet motions. Photo by Paige Brown.

A participant in STEP works with the wearable tech.

A participant tests one of the wearable rings, now with a controller attached. Photo by Paige Brown.

“I came into Olin with a lot of technical experience, and some things like software and machine learning you can experiment with on your own,” says Gati Aher ’23, another STEP participant. “But something you can’t do alone is learn how to plan out long-term, multi-person efforts, or discover different modes of organizing teams. STEP offers a lot of experiences that closely align with what I want to do in the real world.”

A student with black hair and light gray sweater and glasses talks in a classroom.

Navi Boyalakuntla '22 is pictured during a recent STEP class. Photo by Paige Brown.

“I never want to call them ‘soft’ skills, because they’re actually really, really hard,” says Kate Mackowiak ’23. “The things we learn and practice in STEP—like working in teams, motivating a large group of people, allocation of resources and tasks—are life skills that I can use forever.”

Mackowiak, who is pursuing a humanities concentration in education design, hopes to revisit STEP next year as part of her senior year Capstone to see how this out-of-the-box course has evolved and how students’ voices and values are being integrated.

“Students came to STEP for a variety of reasons: Some wanted to focus on one big project to deepen their engineering skills, some were drawn to a chance to shape a new educational experience in collaboration with faculty, and others were intrigued by an opportunity try their hand at social entrepreneurship,” says Michalka. “It was not all sunshine and rainbows, but I am proud of what we learned and built together.”

A group of three students wearing face masks talk with professors in a classroom.

Prisha Sadhwani, '23 and Kate Mackowiak ’23 (center) along with Andrew Chang '24 talk with STEP professors during a recent class. Photo by Paige Brown.

As the semester winds down, the faculty and some of the students intend to continue the project over the summer. STEP will run again in spring 2023, and faculty will take the intervening time to decide the best next steps for both the educational experience and the product ideas they have generated so far.

Multiple students collaborate with a professor around a table in a classroom with a large blackboard in the background.

Students talk with Alessandra Ferzoco, Assistant Professor of Measurement Science, during a recent STEP class. Photo by Paige Brown.

“We all learned so much as we went along that we’re better informed now about what worked well and what we need to adapt,” says Ferzoco. “The intellectual vitality you get from working in groups like this is important, as well as the emotional vitality from the support available at Olin for an initiative like this. The administrators, the staff, the students—an incredible number of people convened to make this STEP experiment happen, and we are very grateful to them all.”

View a gallery of photos from a recent STEP class.