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Starting with a clean slate

Before an engineering college opens, 30 student 'partners' test out its radical approach

Visiting the building site of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, the first US engineering school in four decades to be created from the ground up, is like witnessing a collective academic bungee jump.

Leighton Ige, a high school valedictorian from Hawaii, could have gone to Harvard last fall. Instead, he came to a muddy construction site as one of 30 new "Olin partners." Along with faculty and a cadre of other math and science wunderkinder, these adventurous students are spending this year creating a new model for undergraduate engineering education.

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Through innovative design projects like the recent attempt to build the world's largest Rube Goldberg machine, faculty say they will develop a curriculum that both inspires students and causes lessons to stick like super glue, rather than being quickly forgotten.

Inspiration does not seem to be a problem. Like most of the young partners here, Mr. Ige happily works around the clock for no class credit. His 16- to 20-hour days are typical for many students. In essence, they are voluntary curriculum guinea pigs for the school's first 22 faculty members.

The partners were selected from a pool of more than 660 Olin applicants. Several are valedictorians. All are math and science whizzes whose SAT scores are among the top 3 percent nationwide. They will be joined by 45 other students when the school's first freshman class arrives this fall on the new campus in Needham, Mass., a suburb of Boston. All the students receive a four-year scholarship for tuition and housing worth an estimated $130,000. (This will likely extend to future classes, as well, but officials haven't said how long the policy will last.)

Engineering, plus liberal arts

Olin officials say the school is trying to select and cultivate well-rounded students - not to replicate the excessively bookish and introverted "nerd" culture found at some technology institutions. After four years, Olin students should be top engineers, but also adept at dissecting a Shakespearian sonnet or creating a startup company, they say.

What tickled Ige's fancy and lured him away from the prestigious schools that pepper the Boston area was the irreverent notion of melding engineering with liberal arts and entrepreneurship - a sort of "renaissance engineering," he says. It appealed to the cello-playing graphic-design expert, who also owns a Web consulting business and sees himself as much more than "just an engineer."

"I just kept thinking how fun it would be to help start a college and break away from the norms and blaze a new trail," he says.

Olin is indeed a radical experiment, a sort of utopian bid to remake undergraduate engineering education. Engineering schools today are often considered within academia as math and science "boot camps" that churn out many bright young hopefuls with masses of math theory but little actual engineering experience. Students who survive the first few semesters of these programs get to do projects later - sometimes as late as their junior year.

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Olin's idea, in contrast, is to learn mainly by doing projects from the start, and to put top faculty directly in charge of nurturing student success instead of having research assistants do most of the teaching. Another goal is to engineer a culture more conducive to continuous improvement. So there will be an honor code at Olin, but there won't be tenure. No departments, either. The focus will be students.

Investing in broad changes

The Olin experiment is largely the outgrowth of calls by the National Science Foundation and others during the 1990s for broad structural and cultural, rather than incremental, changes in undergraduate engineering. The New York City-based F.W. Olin Foundation, which has funded engineering buildings on many campuses for more than half a century, decided to take a leap of faith in that direction. So, in 1997, it committed well over $300 million to build a new kind of undergraduate engineering school - purchasing a 70-acre hillside site next to Babson College, one of the nation's leading colleges of business entrepreneurship.

In March 1999, the foundation recruited its first hire: the college's president, Richard Miller. A well-regarded former aerospace engineering professor, he pioneered the nation's first technological entrepreneurship program for engineers at the University of Iowa. For two years, Dr. Miller has been busy recruiting faculty and laying groundwork.

From the start, he faced several critical chicken-and-egg questions: How do you create a world-class institution from scratch? Would top faculty come to a school that did not offer tenure? More important, would top students who could pick any elite school bother to even apply to a school that had no buildings yet and was not accredited?

Early on, Miller and a handful of administrators decided to seek a unique breed of top student: the risk taker. Largely for that reason, Olin brochures are quirky, offbeat, filled with images of derring-do - people walking in space, ice-climbing, racing, whitewater rafting.

None of the student partners have yet taken any for-credit college engineering, calculus, or physics classes here. But since October, they have been quizzing their professors, teaching one another, and poring over books and Internet sites. Their goal: learn on the fly what is needed to tackle an eclectic group of projects.

So far, without any formal training and with limited facilities, the partners have designed and built possibly the world's largest Rube Goldberg device and become finalists in a prestigious contest to design a Mars-based greenhouse for NASA. Now, several are working on a golf-ball cannon (see story at right). Still, the goal isn't a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records - even though the Rube Goldberg device was submitted.

"We're actively involved in designing the classes we're going to be taking," Ige says. "We're able to provide feedback to the professors, help them find out what's useful, and show where the gaps are. Every day we're building things. It is just a blast."

Exciting, it may be. But building Olin's intellectual and physical infrastructure is still not particularly glamorous work.

Ige's abode today is a prefab room in a gray, modular building that serves as a dormitory. Nearly 300,000 square feet of new brick-and-steel campus buildings, including a luxurious high-tech dorm, can be seen rising on a mud-rutted hillside a few hundred yards away.

Just across an asphalt road from the current dorm is another equally unexciting building full of academic offices and elbow-to-elbow classrooms.

A faculty willing to probe

Fortunately, it's not the digs that attracted Stephen Holt. Sitting in his tiny office, the first-year professor of physics at Olin is overseeing the "MarsPort" greenhouse project. It's a natural for the former director of Space Sciences at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"It's really amazing to be around young people who don't know what they cannot do," he says. "These kids don't realize they're not supposed to be there, competing with MIT and Caltech and the rest in this [MarsPort] competition. So they're in there slugging it out."

Dr. Holt, who has hundreds of scholarly works to his credit, is one of Olin's new world-class intellects, the sort of big fish President Miller once only dreamed of luring to his faculty. What he found, however, is that many top faculty would exchange even a sure thing, tenure, for a shot at changing engineering education for the better.

Along with Holt, the school has been able to skim the cream from more than 1,900 résumés. The first group of 22 professors include women and men who have left tenured and tenure-track positions at several notable institutions.

Lynn Andrea Stein, now a professor of computer science and engineering at Olin, left a tenure-track position teaching robotics at MIT. Likewise, Michael Moody was chair of the math department at Harvey Mudd College before he pulled up stakes for Olin.

"After 31 years at Vanderbilt, I thought it would be fun to try something different," says John Bourne, now a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "The plug-and-chug method of teaching engineering has not always served us well."

Plug and chug, he explains, refers to the typical engineering math or physics class, in which students in a large lecture hall copy down what the professor puts on the board, then plug those equations into homework to produce the correct results.

But the faculty is hardly a monoculture when it comes to its views on education. Despite its present small size, the professoriate will grow as the number of students grows to about 650. Women make up about one-third of the faculty - a bigger proportion than that of most engineering schools. And all the professors seem to have distinct ideas of what will work.

Holt, for instance, has seen both success and failure at NASA, and is more circumspect than some about aspects of the emerging curriculum. He is quick to point out that one key concept being probed - nonlinear, multi-disciplinary learning - is not surefire and may not work in practice.

If the main goal of the school is to produce "superb engineering," then the foundational teaching cannot be a patchwork quilt, he says.

"I'm at the extreme right [side of the spectrum] among the faculty," he says. "I've been advocating that we teach subjects completely so we don't have gaps. We're doing things nontraditionally in order to investigate how well they work."

This is exactly the sort of rigorous probing by faculty and students that reassures Miller that the curriculum will be solid when classes begin this fall. In fact, the curriculum is pretty well set at this point, he says.

"We believe, and we're betting, that the caliber of the students and passion of the faculty will make this work," he says.

Do something 'outrageous'

Another of those students is Joelle Arnold. A young valedictorian from Middletown Springs, Vt., she was accepted at MIT, Cornell, and Stanford. She was Stanford bound until she visited Olin at the urging of her mother.

"It was very hard to turn down Stanford," she says, sitting on the floor of her dorm room. "But then I was filling out all the forms, I was getting this feeling that it was all very cookie-cutter."

So she applied to Olin. She and her roommate, Katerina Blazek, a robotics whiz with fluorescent red hair, are up to their necks in creating the Mars-based greenhouse project.

"In one of my [class] modules, I had four professors, and if I didn't understand, one of them would sit down for an hour and explain it," Ms. Arnold says. "But the bottom line for me is simple. How could I turn down this opportunity to do something so outrageous and totally off the beaten path?"

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The kind of learning that 'sticks with you'

Inside Olin College of Engineering's squat academic building, eight students in two teams are heading toward a classroom to present three days' worth of frantic work to design a "golf-ball cannon."

"We've been learning physics, calculus, and material science all at once," says Joy Poisel, clutching a square makeup mirror that the team will use to illustrate a trajectory-adjustment mechanism.

Each team was told the cannon had to safely shoot golf balls as far and accurately as possible - and cost less than $300. Now, they will explain and defend their creations. It's all part of Olin's quest to form a new project-based engineering curriculum. And these students have volunteered to be guinea pigs for a school still under construction.

Sara Schwalbenberg and Ms. Poisel open with an overview of the machine they dubbed "The Insomniac" - because of the lack of sleep it has caused them. Team member Christopher Chavez explains how the cannon's base works. Polina Segalova details her group's computations for muzzle velocity and pressure.

Listening are Profs. Mark Somerville, Jonathan Stolk, and Brian Storey, who represent three disciplines: mechanical engineering, physics, and materials science. Each takes a turn questioning the students.

The insomniacs answer at first with confidence, but they are stumped on the muzzle-velocity issue. They are not alone, though. The other group, which dubbed their machine "bunkerbuster," also stumbles on this complex calculation.

Could it be that not having had college calculus, physics, or material-sciences instruction is the problem? The students think so. "It didn't seem to make sense for us to put this design out without knowing anything," Ms. Segalova says. Other thinly veiled complaints follow. Finally, Mr. Somerville cuts to the core. "OK, let me put it this way: Should we have done this to you?"

"Nothing we've learned in class prepared us for this and it's been pretty frustrating," Poisel responds.

"I understand your frustration," Somerville says. "But I have to tell you that, in my gut, I feel the fact that you were frustrated is not necessarily a bad thing. You've learned a lot on your own - and that kind of learning sticks with you longer."

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