Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering was founded in 1997 to prepare “students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions, and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.” Since the first students enrolled 10 years ago, Olin has become a significant agent for innovation in undergraduate engineering education with the goal of preparing the next generation for the complex, global challenges of the 21st century.
The F.W. Olin Foundation established Olin College to literally start over in higher education and develop a new paradigm for engineering education, addressing at once all the concerns raised about engineering education at the time. Furthermore, the purpose of the new institution is to “become an important and constant contributor to the advancement of engineering education in America and throughout the world.” To insure that a fresh approach was used, Olin does not offer tenure, has no academic departments, offers only degrees in engineering, and provides large merit-based scholarships to all admitted students.
Armed with one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education, the F. W. Olin Foundation recruited Richard Miller as Olin’s first employee in 1999. To help build the college from scratch, Miller recruited the founding academic leadership team including David Kerns and Sherra Kerns later that year. Together, they developed a vision for an engaging approach to teaching engineering and a new culture of learning that is intensely student centered. Perhaps the most important contribution they made was the creation of a profoundly inclusive and collaborative process of experimentation and decision-making involving students in every aspect of the invention of the institution. This is illustrated by the decision in 2001 to recruit 30 young students to spend a year as “partners” in residence with the faculty in conducting many experiments together before establishing the first curriculum.
With the extensive help of a collaborative team of faculty and students, and the guidance of the late Dr. Michael Moody, a novel academic program emerged. Some of the features include a nearly gender-balanced community, a strong focus on design process throughout all four years, extensive use of team projects, a requirement that students repeatedly “stand and deliver” to the entire community at the end of every semester, an experiential requirement in business and entrepreneurship, a capstone requirement outside of engineering, and a year-long corporate-sponsored design project in which corporations pay $50,000 per project.
The new learning model, and the inclusive process that produced it, are attracting substantial international attention. In the past three years about 200 universities have visited Olin to benchmark and explore ways of initiating major changes in their own curriculum. Nine other institutions have already made substantial changes that were inspired by the Olin program, and dozens of others are considering such changes. In the next ten years, Olin aspires to build a “movement” among like-minded institutions to globally transform the education of undergraduate engineers.