Marshmallows, Sticky Notes, and Innovation by Brett Rowley '14

you were on campus during the first week of June, you might have been surprised
to see the dining hall unusually full:


and projectors and people, oh my!

Olin's Initiative for Innovation
in Engineering Education (I2E2) hosted its annual Summer Institute, an
opportunity for members of other educational institutions to come and spend a
week in an intensive, Olin-style experience centered around curriculum design.
Besides the fact that this was the largest Institute I2E2 has put on so far (50
or so guests from literally all over the world - Brazil, Mexico, Qatar,
Singapore, and a few from the United States), this is also the first time they
have had student helpers on-hand, namely myself and Sebastian Dziallas. We've
both been working for I2E2 this past year and have loved the experience of
meeting and talking with so many different people working towards educational innovation,
so the Summer Institute was obviously a great opportunity for us.

Sebastian and I have been working in an independent study project trying
to define exactly what Olin is on a cultural level and think about ways we can
export that to other schools. Needless to say, this whole thing is right up our

Trying to summarize or describe
the event as a whole would take a very long time, so Sebastian and I have put
together a few things that we, the students, took away from the week.

It's more than just content

Wen you first heard thewords "a week-long program about reforming engineering education", you probably
weren't expecting the first item on the schedule to look like this, were you?
How hard can it be?

for those who aren't familiar with it, is a fairly straightforward sounding
exercise, challenging the participants to use un-cooked spaghetti and some tape
to create a the tallest tower. The catch? There has to be a marshmallow on top.
Sounds easy right? Well, it is... if you realize that the marshmallow may feel
light and fluffy until you put it on the end of a piece of spaghetti. Then it's
like a boulder.

It sounds like an utterly bizarre way of starting the week (and there were
definitely a few looks of "Wait. They want us to
do what?"), but it does a great job of setting the tone for the week:
the biggest problem facing engineering education isn't necessarily what we're
teaching, it's how we're teaching. And, in turn, what we're not
teaching. The week's activities didn't focus on learning how to cram as much
material into a class as possible, but on how to teach both hard-skills (what
we'd regularly refer to as class content) and soft-skills (what you
could call attitudes, behaviors, ways of thinking, etc.) in the context of each
institution. I once heard an employer say that Olin students are like regular
students, but with 3-5 years experience. Where does experience come from? Not
from a textbook, that's for sure.

Breaking the paradigm of traditional education
is hard. Really hard.

The saying "old habits die hard" seems appropriate here. Part of the Institute
was trying to help people innovate a curriculum within the constraints of their
institution. Olin is obviously a special place
and enables us to do a lot of things that may not be feasible at other schools,
so we have to be willing to help other institutions adapt our work and process
to their system(s).


Mark Somerville using
sticky notes to push attendees to challenge their paradigms...

While I think it's
fair to say that all of the attendees came with open minds, it was apparent
that some institutions were more flexible than others. One question that kept
coming up over and over was that of assessment. "How do you measure intrinsic
motivation?", "How do you grade these projects?", "What kind of rubric do you
use?", etc.

Grades are a tricky example since they really are built into the fabric of our
educational society and there seems to be no easy solution to replace
them with a better system.  In addition, the
question of assessment made it clear to us that unless you are starting with a
very clean sheet of paper, trying to do something really innovative is really
hard. Having just read those statements again out loud, it seems like an
incredibly obvious thing to say, but seeing others struggle with this problem
made us appreciate (even more than we already did) what a special place Olin

very own Vin Manno was there, drawing up super-secret plans for Olin's

So what did the week
like? Fantastic! Obviously it was great to talk to so many interesting people,
make connections, hear cool things, etc., but the most satisfying thing was to
see these 50 strangers go through a mini-Olin experience from the perspective
of someone who has been there, a perspective of both a teacher and a student.
The attendees were initially confused, then interested, then worked hard, then
got stuck, then had lots of coffee and tried to think of easy ways out. They then
had more coffee, put their heads
together and got working on a new idea, probably had some more coffee, powered
through the final couple of days, and kept asking questions (some of which may have been about where the
fresh pot of coffee was). At this point,
we could actually observe them becoming more independent and confident in
themselves, before finally making it to the end with some really
work. Not only did they leave with great ideas about how to reform their own
curricula, they met a bunch of new people to bounce ideas off of, form
partnerships with, and generally work together with to help reform engineering
education. And they had fun doing it! I'm sure they'd say what the average Oliner says about their experiences: "it
was a tough, but worth it"

Thumbnail image for i2e2_group.jpg

What Olin experience would be
complete without a photo under the Wooden Waterfall?


Posted in: Awesome Internships, Fun @ Olin, Learning about Design, Making a Difference