Living Like We're Renegades

William Saulnier '16

It’s been a while since I last posted on the blog, and a lot has changed in my life, as well as around me. Now, I come back to the Olinsider as a senior, old and wise, and ready to impart the wisdom of the ancients onto you. It’s in that vein that I started to reflect and think back on three years at Olin with one to go, and consider why I have felt such a strong affinity to this place above all else.

See, in the quest to be an engineer, you have to learn how to, well, learn. That’s the sort of thing that I love about engineering.  The challenges that we face don’t have easy answers, or sometimes even answers at all. In that strange way engineering to me is more like an art than a science. We are the renegades that search for answers in an uncertain world. We use the scientific formulas, knowledge, and background as paint and brushes, but our art is in the synthesizing of those parts into a greater whole.

Take the first year courses (which are so long ago, ah!) Courses like Design Nature and Modeling and Simulation ask of you to create works of art; they want you to solve problems like “How do populations of sea turtles shift as temperatures rise and fall?” or “How can you make your contraption of delrin and cloth flap its wings like a bird does?”. And in the process of those classes they give you the various colors, pens, and various art analogies in explanations about physics and fabrication, in mathematical modeling, and computer aided design just to name a few. What makes this different is that people can spend their four years learning as much as there is to know about physics, math, or design, but that, to me, feels like making a whole lot of paint and doing nothing with it. The beauty of engineering is to learn the right amount of everything so you can do anything.

In a more recent example, take Computer Networks, a special topics course. It combines networking theory and computer programming with a splash of morse code, history, and data analysis to create a class that’s all about building a network from the ground up. Olin’s best classes are like this, instead of focusing on deep subject area expertise (which is important, still, don’t get me wrong), focusing on broader knowledge and then putting it into practice. The expectation is not that you exit the class knowing everything, but rather, that you exit the class having built something, and know how to further your knowledge in the field. It’s different from classes where you are given the information that you have to know. Instead, you are given what you have to know and told to find the information.

It’s scary to be a renegade, and I’ll admit that. To be presented with the solution and not the problem is so counter to my, and I’m sure to many other people’s traditional views of how education should work. But engineers in the real world are presented with the solutions that are wanted and are asked the question “How?” And that’s the most exciting thing that I had here at Olin. I’ve been able to immerse myself in the “How” as opposed to lecture and theory, and looking back on it I can’t imagine going to any other school anywhere else.

Posted in: Class of 2016