Time for Change at Olin

Passion for the Welfare of Olin College

“I will be a steward for the welfare of Olin College through a spirit of cooperation, concern for others, and responsibility for the reputation of Olin College.”

Openness to Change

“I will be receptive to change, supportive of innovation, and willing to take risks for the benefit of the community.”

I want you to think about those two statements and think about how you may or may not have applied them to your life at Olin. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an increase in the lack of stewardship towards the college with each incoming class. I remember as a first year that the senior class was very vocal about things they wanted to see happen, namely the change from the half-tuition scholarship back to the full-tuition scholarship. In contrast, at our last town hall meeting, the student body was practically silent. In general, even though we’ve been paying more for our education than past classes, we are not nearly as vocal or persistent about the change that we’d like to see happen at Olin. Professors have also commented that current students do not take as many risks as students did in the past, especially in partner year. This is probably indicative of the times we live in, but it still leaves me wondering if other Oliners are aware of our changing culture and how we’re maybe not taking as big a risk as students before us.

Olin struggles with change. Last year, I attempted to change the Olin tour guide training system (I was tired of hearing things being made up about the robotics lab on a daily basis). In the spring I tried to make it a build day project with David Zhu, but nothing came of it – admissions did not want to waste the paper necessary to make postcards showcasing the various activities on campus, nor did they support having a PowerPoint presentation style guide that would help tour guides keep track of updated information. Ultimately, they claimed that any changes to the tour guide training process would be left in the hands of the tour coordinator. That whole process left me wondering if other Olin students felt that, despite their efforts to make change, they felt major push back and consequently became discouraged.

That’s not to say that change isn’t possible. At the end of last semester, a few peers and I sat down with Dave Barrett and Drew Bennett to discuss improvements to the robotics curriculum and ongoing research. The robotics lab was stretched thin, taking on over 8 different projects simultaneously. We wanted to make sure that valuable feedback was given to Dave and Drew to help improve the research experience, as well as the robotics curriculum, for the generations after us. What was the result? Well in the short term, it ended with us adding more structure to our group, such as setting goals for our research, and creating a set of labs for Robotics 2 culminating with a Mars rover challenge. Additionally, at the meeting we decided the lab should create informational handouts and cards for prospective students to take home. The cards that we developed were popular amongst the Candidates, and the Marketing department has now seen them and is supporting further efforts. Furthermore, we have inspired other labs such as Jean’s and Joanne’s biology labs to also develop cards of their own to increase the visibility of their work.

Above are a few of my own experiences, but my point is that if I’m feeling push back, and therefore, some frustration, do other Oliners share my experience? After much introspection and discussion, I’ve concluded that there are two main causes for the push back against change: either Oliners are trying to initiate change but are becoming discouraged, or they are seeing that others become discouraged and therefore don’t even try in the first place. Both are not good mindsets for anyone or great things to have as a part of our culture. I really like to hope that neither will be the case for long.
Some of us will be gone in two months, and others will be gone in three or more years. I’d like to point out that the stewardship of the college, where it will be in ten or twenty years, is highly dependent on the culture and the values of the students, faculty, and staff. Olin’s mission is to bringing about change in engineering education and the way higher-level education is approached. Are we, the student body, really content with what is here, or are we just begrudgingly accepting things that we feel little power to change? If we let ourselves become complacent, and we continue not to take action, will Olin then plateau and become more like a traditional engineering school? That is something I would prefer to avoid.