A Candid Conversation with Vin Manno

The published version, cut to save space, is on top. Scroll down past the break to read the full interview.

One wall of Manno’s spacious (by Olin standards) office is covered by a sprawling bookshelf, his own mechanical engineering library. Artfully arranged on the shelves are memorabilia: models of elephants, for Jumbo, the Tufts mascot, are gifts from former students. And right next to his computer, for easy viewing, a digital picture frame scrolls through photos of his family.

Vin_Manno

Vin Manno came to Olin after a successful twenty-seven year career at Tufts. He was a celebrated professor of Mechanical Engineering, and held a various leadership positions in the administration. But when Olin sought out a new Provost and Dean, he couldn’t resist the pull of our mission, to innovate undergraduate engineering worldwide.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me a bit about what you do here?

MANNO: The things that I spend most of my time and effort on the curricular program and its general direction and structure; faculty development, recruiting, evaluation, and mentorship. Also, because Olin has this dual mission of both innovation within Olin and transformation of undergraduate engineering education outside of Olin, I spend a fair amount of time interacting with people from other colleges and universities who have similar concerns.

FRANKLY: What are your primary objectives here at Olin?

MANNO: When I look at the Olin curriculum, I see some terrific things but some areas of opportunity too.

I think among the terrific things is that the first two or three semesters have some really special pieces, that while we’re continuing to evolve them, are great examples of undergraduate engineering education innovation: things like Design Nature, and Modeling and Control, and ModSim.

Another thing that I think is really strong about the Olin curriculum is its very deliberate focus on design, in a very complete and organic way that now goes through the entire curriculum. If you follow the design spine back up to SCOPE, there may be a few things we can improve about it, but as far as synthesizing, integrated experiences – real experiences- it’s probably fairly close to good as you can get. Those are real strengths that I think we can build on.

There are some things I think we could step back and work on right now. For example, we’re working to try to take a more fundamental and strategic look at entrepreneurship. I think what’s critical there is trying to get our arms around: what is the role of entrepreneurship in an undergraduate engineering curriculum? There are schools where entrepreneurship is an end unto itself, but I think that what we’re trying to figure out- something that Olin said it was going to do, but is still a work in progress. We’ve taken an integrated view of arts, humanities, and social sciences as far as the whole engineering education picture is concerned. We have to do the same thing in entrepreneurship.

Another area where think we have more work to do, I’ll put under the general heading of integration, especially the integration of the math and science with the engineering parts of the curriculum. I think we have interesting and good individual pieces, but sometimes it’s not clear how the puzzle pieces fit together. What’s different about the Olin curriculum in general is that all of the programs have a lot more overlap than happens in other places. When we were preparing for the current ABET accreditation and prepared our self-study reports for our three programs, somewhere between 80 and 85% of the curriculum is the same for all three programs.

So that’s different. And the number of courses that are specifically of a mechanical engineering or an electrical engineering or E framing, the fraction of the whole is smaller. But if you scratch a little deeper, some of the course material within the programs, even though it’s delivered in an innovative way, is sometimes not very different than the material that you would see in the analogous programs of other schools. That might give us some opportunities for innovation.

FRANKLY: Are you saying that you want to increase the level of integration?

MANNO: I am. We want to decrease the level of perceived specification. The fact of the matter is, if we think about where Olin’s strengths really lay, the software, electro-and mechanical area is where a great deal of innovation happens. A lot of the bioengineering work that goes on fits in that space too, as a combination of software and electrical sensors, and mechanical elements such as bioreactors and components used tissue engineering or biomedical devices.

It’s about limiting the extent to which you draw artificial boundaries among disciplines.

FRANKLY: You’ve mentioned that the faculty drives the curriculum. In what ways do you interact with the faculty?

MANNO: I spend a great a deal of time working with the faculty, both as an amalgam of folks who are delivering the curriculum and building our programs, but more on an individual basis.

The faculty here are really a self-selected group; education and learning is at the core of their being. This is why they’ve gotten into the profession.

Part of my job is to encourage and give the faculty feedback on the curriculum and how they’re doing. But also, what are their areas of intellectual vitality? For some people, it could be a very traditional research track. For other people, it could be scholarship in learning and education. For other people, it could be practice. My job is to deal with people individually, but also to step back and see, if I look at the forty or so faculty across the college, what does it look like as a group? What does it look like as an organism, as opposed to just the individual pieces?
What are we doing to continually evolve and change our own curriculum and programs?

While some of the things that we do are certainly relevant to general education and to other areas, really where we’re committed to being leaders is in undergraduate engineering education. But I really believe that, properly structured, that the type of program that we could have here at Olin is the right type of education for a much larger fraction of the population than just engineers.

If all the Olin Foundation did was take half a billion dollars and invest it in producing eighty really motivated, bright, potential engineering or other students a year, that would have been a lousy investment. It just wouldn’t have been worth it. But if the investment was to both produce those types of people who become exemplars and models for others and help those others change – other engineering programs and other educational institutions – then it’s really worth the investment.

What we expect from our faculty is that not only that they are impactful on our own students, but what they do has impact outside of Olin.
In my mind, it’s not a separate mission, because I think from a student standpoint, it makes us a more attractive place. It’s basically, from an admissions standpoint, saying, this is the place where the undergraduate curriculum that might be in another place in ten or fifteen years, is now. Here.

The hard part- but the exciting part- is that we always want to be in that leadership position. Ten years from now, we still want to be the place that’s doing the experiments that the other places are not doing.

We need to rethink undergraduate engineering education. What we’ve done is something very strange. Let’s think about medicine. Let’s contrast engineering with medicine. In my mind, there are two or three major differences. One is that at least in this country, we don’t ask seventeen and eighteen year olds, do you want to become a medical doctor now, and in fact just study medicine and nothing else? In engineering, we do exactly that. And we do something even more bizarre, if you want to carry the medical analogy. Not only do we say to the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, do you want to become an engineer, then we say to the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, do you want to become a mechanical engineer?

We have to look at undergraduate engineering education as preparatory, as giving somebody enough background to move forward either in school or in the workplace. This is what industry wants: folks at the bachelor’s level who have learned how to learn, can work in a team, have some sense of the fundamentals, can make connections, and they can go into specialized training beyond.

You’re hearing this from industry, too. You’re hearing it from the outside world.

FRANKLY: What else would you like me to ask you about?

MANNO: We haven’t talked about my family! They’re my favorite people!

My wife and I, we met when she was in high school, and I went to school with her first cousin. I told her in 1972 that I would give her a call, and I did, in 1976. So you can take that that I’m a man of my word.

We moved to Massachusetts in 1981, when she went off to do her residency at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, and we’ve been here since then. She is now the director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts medical center.

We have three kids, and our oldest daughter went to Tufts and then to Teach for America. She is now a teacher in a charter school in the South Bronx.

Our middle son, Mike, graduated from Tufts in Mechanical Engineering, and the apple not dropping far from the tree, just passed his doctoral exams at the University of Maryland, where he’s getting his PhD in mechanical engineering.

Our youngest son, Chris, is a junior at Western New England University, where he’s an IT guy.

That’s the gang, so it’s a dynamic family.

FRANKLY: Do you have plans to teach a co-curricular?

MANNO: I think that I probably will do one next fall.

I don’t know if you remember, but there was this TV show called Mystery Science Theater, and they’d try to find the worst science fiction movie ever, and they’d talk to each other through the whole thing. So I think maybe a good co-curricular would be to resurrect Mystery Science Theater next fall.

Due to space constraints, this interview is printed in shortened form. View the full interview online at franklyspeakingnews.com.

Full Text
———————————-
A candid conversation with Olin’s Provost and Dean of Faculty faculty, family, and what it means to change undergraduate engineering education.

One wall of Vin Manno’s spacious (by Olin standards) office is covered by a sprawling bookshelf, his own mechanical engineering library. Artfully arranged on the shelves are memorabilia: models of elephants, for Jumbo, the Tufts mascot, are gifts from former students. And right next to his computer, for easy viewing, a digital picture frame scrolls through photos of his family.

Vin Manno came to Olin after a successful twenty-seven year career at Tufts. He was a celebrated professor of Mechanical Engineering, and held a various leadership positions in the administration. But when Olin sought out a new Provost and Dean, he couldn’t resist the pull of our mission, to innovate undergraduate engineering worldwide.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me a bit about what you do here?

MANNO: The things that I spend most of my time and effort on the curricular program and its general direction and structure; faculty development, recruiting, evaluation, and mentorship. Also, because Olin has this dual mission of both innovation within Olin and transformation of undergraduate engineering education outside of Olin, I spend a fair amount of time interacting with people from other colleges and universities who have similar concerns.

FRANKLY: What are your primary objectives here at Olin?

MANNO: One of my main objectives involves helping set the general direction of the curriculum- remember that the faculty really drive what goes on in operation.
When I look at the Olin curriculum, I see some terrific things but some areas of opportunity too.

I think among the terrific things is that the first two or three semesters have some really special pieces, that while we’re continuing to evolve them, are great examples of undergraduate engineering education innovation: things like Design Nature, and Modeling and Control, and ModSim.

Another thing that I think is really strong about the Olin curriculum is its very deliberate focus on design, in a very complete and organic way that now goes through the entire curriculum. If you follow the design spine back up to SCOPE, there may be a few things we can improve about it, but as far as synthesizing, integrated experiences – real experiences- it’s probably fairly close to good as you can get. Those are real strengths that I think we can build on.

There are some things I think we could step back and work on right now. For example, we’re working to try to take a more fundamental and strategic look at entrepreneurship. I think what’s critical there is trying to get our arms around: what is the role of entrepreneurship in an undergraduate engineering curriculum? There are schools where entrepreneurship is an end unto itself, but I think that what we’re trying to figure out- something that Olin said it was going to do, but is still a work in progress. We’ve taken an integrated view of arts, humanities, and social sciences as far as the whole engineering education picture is concerned. We have to do the same thing in entrepreneurship. Another challenge about entrepreneurship is that, if you think about the learning continuum, it’s not only within the curriculum; it’s all that super-curricular stuff that is associated with it.

Another area where think we have more work to do, I’ll put under the general heading of integration, especially the integration of the math and science with the engineering parts of the curriculum. I think we have interesting and good individual pieces, but sometimes it’s not clear how the puzzle pieces fit together. What’s different about the Olin curriculum in general is that all of the programs have a lot more overlap than happens in other places. When we were preparing for the current ABET accreditation and prepared our self-study reports for our three programs, somewhere between 80 and 85% of the curriculum is the same for all three programs.

So that’s different. And the number of courses that are specifically of a mechanical engineering or an electrical engineering or E framing, the fraction of the whole is smaller. But if you scratch a little deeper, some of the course material within the programs, even though it’s delivered in an innovative way, is sometimes not very different than the material that you would see in the analogous programs of other schools. That might give us some opportunities for innovation.

FRANKLY: Are you saying that you want to increase the level of integration?

MANNO: I am. We want to decrease the level of perceived specification. The fact of the matter is, if we think about where Olin’s strengths really lay, the software, electro-and mechanical area is where a great deal of innovation happens. A lot of the bioengineering work that goes on fits in that space too, as a combination of software and electrical sensors, and mechanical elements such as bioreactors and components used tissue engineering or biomedical devices.

It’s about limiting the extent to which you draw artificial boundaries among disciplines.

This doesn’t happen too much at Olin, but you do hear it: students, two or three years into an undergraduate engineering program, will say, well, I shouldn’t need to worry about this or have a better sense of this area or that, because I’m not in that field. I’m a mechanical engineer, so why in the world should I know what software system architecture is like?

My sense is that at this point in people’s development, when you are just learning how to learn, you’d be better off knowing more about those more topics rather than taking an advanced course in your discipline. If you go off to graduate school or advanced training, you’ll have plenty of time to take that advanced course. Probably, a general background is going to do you more good when the next advanced course comes along.

I think there are a couple of conversations we should have. For instance, I think it’s a healthy question in all disciplines to say, well, no matter how much flexibility we want to put into the system, if our students are going to take a fixed number of courses, and that fixed number is going to be on the order of thirty courses over the four years that they’re here, that’s a scarce resource utilization problem. So we should be really taking a look at what we are requiring people to do in that program.

FRANKLY: You’ve mentioned that the faculty drives the curriculum. In what ways do you interact with the faculty?

MANNO: I spend a great a deal of time working with the faculty, both as an amalgam of folks who are delivering the curriculum and building our programs, but more on an individual basis.

The faculty here are really a self-selected group; education and learning is at the core of their being. This is why they’ve gotten into the profession.

Part of my job is to encourage and give the faculty feedback on the curriculum and how they’re doing. But also, what are their areas of intellectual vitality? For some people, it could be a very traditional research track. For other people, it could be scholarship in learning and education. For other people, it could be practice. My job is to deal with people individually, but also to step back and see, if I look at the forty or so faculty across the college, what does it look like as a group? What does it look like as an organism, as opposed to just the individual pieces?

What are we doing to continually evolve and change our own curriculum and programs?

While some of the things that we do are certainly relevant to general education and to other areas, really where we’re committed to being leaders is in undergraduate engineering education. But I really believe that, properly structured, that the type of program that we could have here at Olin is the right type of education for a much larger fraction of the population than just engineers.

Because we have this mission to also help transform education the faculty have to be focused on having impact, both internally and externally.
If all the Olin Foundation did was take half a billion dollars and invest it in producing eighty really motivated, bright, potential engineering or other students a year, that would have been a lousy investment. It just wouldn’t have been worth it. But if the investment was to both produce those types of people who become exemplars and models for others and help those others change – other engineering programs and other educational institutions – then it’s really worth the investment.

What we expect from our faculty is that not only that they are impactful on our own students, but what they do has impact outside of Olin. That we can be involved with helping other places change, be co-creators, et cetera.
In my mind, it’s not a separate mission, because I think from a student standpoint, it makes us a more attractive place. It’s basically, from an admissions standpoint, saying, this is the place where the undergraduate curriculum that might be in another place in ten or fifteen years, is now. Here.

The hard part- but the exciting part- is that we always want to be in that leadership position. Ten years from now, we still want to be the place that’s doing the experiments that the other places are not doing.

We need to rethink undergraduate engineering education. What we’ve done is something very strange. Let’s think about medicine. Let’s contrast engineering with medicine. In my mind, there are two or three major differences. One is that at least in this country, we don’t ask seventeen and eighteen year olds, do you want to become a medical doctor now, and in fact just study medicine and nothing else? In engineering, we do exactly that. And we do something even more bizarre, if you want to carry the medical analogy. Not only do we say to the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, do you want to become an engineer, then we say to the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, do you want to become a mechanical engineer?

You’re hardly into anything. And plus, why don’t you do that without having any practical experience? This is odd; this is an odd system that we have.

We have to look at undergraduate engineering education as preparatory, as giving somebody enough background to move forward either in school or in the workplace. This is what industry wants: folks at the bachelor’s level who have learned how to learn, can work in a team, have some sense of the fundamentals, can make connections, and they can go into specialized training beyond.

You’re hearing this from industry, too. You’re hearing it from the outside world.

FRANKLY: What made you decide to leave your career at Tufts to come here?

MANNO: I had watched Olin from a distance. I’d say that my experience as a student, as an engineer, and as a university person all helped make this, when this finally job started to become a reality, I realized that it was something that I so much wanted to do.

As a student, I sort of felt that I was a victim of the post-Sputnik engineering/science revolution. I went to Columbia as an undergraduate. I think I got a terrific applied science education; I don’t think I got much of an engineering education at all. I could solve lots of differential equations; I didn’t think I had many good, practical skills.

And that came to fruition. I went to work as an engineer for about three or four years in the middle of graduate school, and my perceptions about myself were correct.
Tufts is a fabulous place; I had a terrific career there. My last few years there, I was associate provost and I got involved with things outside of engineering. I was involved with graduate education across the entire university; I had cross-disciplinary programs report to me, like the environmental institute, it was this great cross-university experience.

But undergraduate engineering education was what I was always dedicated to. And I also found that I had some skill in getting people to work together to achieve common goals: in both articulating those goals and trying to be supportive of those goals.

Coming to Olin was an unbelievable opportunity; when I step back, this is where my career was heading. This is really an ideal job for me.

FRANKLY: What else would you like me to ask you about?

MANNO: We haven’t talked about my family! They’re my favorite people!

My wife and I, we met when she was in high school, and I went to school with her first cousin. I told her in 1972 that I would give her a call, and I did, in 1976. So you can take that that I’m a man of my word.
We’re both from New York originally, both from the city. It’s a mixed marriage; I’m from Brooklyn, she’s from Queens.

We actually started to date seriously right when I headed off for grad school at MIT. She started medical school in New York the year after I went to MIT. And due to a number of circumstances, we just decided that the long distance was not working out that well. This was before the internet and cell phones; this is where you either paid a phone bill, bought an Amtrak ticket, or ate, you could pick two out of three of those, so I took a leave of absence from MIT, went to New York, we were married. We lived in New York during her last two years of medical school, and I worked as an engineer.

We moved to Massachusetts in 1981, when she went off to do her residency at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, and we’ve been here since then. She is now the director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts medical center.

We have three kids, and our oldest daughter went to Tufts and then to Teach for America. She is now a teacher in a charter school in the South Bronx.

Our middle son, Mike, graduated from Tufts in Mechanical Engineering, and the apple not dropping far from the tree, just passed his doctoral exams at the University of Maryland, where he’s getting his PhD in mechanical engineering.

Our youngest son, Chris, is a junior at Western New England University, where he’s an IT guy.

That’s the gang, so it’s a dynamic family.

Elizabeth was a double major in child development and American studies at Tufts. I don’t know how it is in your family, but my experience is that daughters are better at maintaining contact than sons, so I would see my daughter a lot, because she wanted to stop by, not because she happened to be walking through the engineering buildings.

When Mike went to Tufts engineering, I didn’t know how that was going to play out, and then he went and majored in Mechanical Engineering, which was the department that I was in.

The good news was that at that point, I was in some administrative position, so I would steer clear of required courses, so that there was less of a chance that he and I would cross paths as professor and student.

We did have what I thought was a great experience his second semester of senior year, when it couldn’t have really affected anything about his grades, etc. He took a course with me, so I had my son in my class. Also in his class (of 2010), I wound up being an advisor to ten or fifteen students in that graduating class. So it was more like a family. Actually, it was fabulous, and because of him, I’ve maintained a closer connection with the students in that graduating class.

And then our youngest son saw what “fun” it was to go to the same school that Dad taught at that he didn’t apply to Tufts. And then I left anyway.

Back to being here at Olin – one thing that I had anticipated that has come to fruition is that this is an all-consuming job. It’s a 24/7 type. What else do I do? – Other than here at Olin; it’s just family and very routine activities at home.

When our kids were younger, I did a lot more sports coaching and the like. I coached youth baseball for about twelve years.

FRANKLY: Do you have any plans to teach a co-curricular?

MANNO: I think that I probably will do one next fall.
I couldn’t teach a course and do a co-curricular in the same term, just not enough time I am one of the Real World Measurement faculty this coming spring. I am looking forward to that.

About co-curricular? I grew up in New York, but I’m not a Yankees fan. I did adopt the Red Sox, so I was thinking about a co-curricular on baseball, but the Red Sox were so depressing this year that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Actually recently I have been thinking about a different direction. For some reason, I watched and paid attention to too many bad science fiction movies of the 1950s, so I’m thinking about leading a co-curricular about the various radiation scare ones, like the movie where the giant octopus climbs up on the Golden Gate Bridge.
I don’t know if you remember, but there was this TV show called Mystery Science Theater, and they’d try to find the worst science fiction movie ever, and they’d talk to each other through the whole thing. So I think maybe a good co-curricular would be to resurrect Mystery Science Theater next fall.