The Coming Revolution

I started reading David Goldberg and Mark Somerville’s book, A Whole New Engineer last weekend, and it gave me chills. It’s a quick read (under 250 pages, with graphics, lists, and call-outs aplenty) and a riveting one. The authors have a simple message, and a call to action: Olin is implementing a better approach to teaching engineers, and there are easy-to-imitate steps that any faculty can and should follow.

The book starts off filled with familiar faces and ideologies. We follow Rick, Charlie Nolan and the rest of the first group of Olin employees, Mark Somerville, the founding faculty, the partners, and all of the rest of the highly intelligent and highly motivated people who poured their hearts and souls into founding Olin. I laughed out loud at some of the episodes from Olin’s early days. For example: After the faculty spent most of Partner Year struggling with the answer to the nebulous question “what should an engineer know,” producing scads of sticky notes, but little consensus, then-Provost David Kerns finally organized a several day long retreat in MIT’s Endicott house for five faculty and one partner. His instructions to them were “not to come out without a curriculum.” And it worked! Then there are other stories – the bouncy castle apology incident; the Rube Goldberg machine, the first design challenge (all key elements of Olin lore that I remember learning about in my first or second year here).

An interlude at the University of Illinois demonstrates a powerful illustration of the book’s premise: Educators who felt that change was necessary and that existing change mechanisms were insufficient were able to replicate the Olin effect in their institution. This really hammered home, for me, the worth of Olin’s partnerships with other universities like UTEP and INSPER, and the many visits organized by the Collaboratory. The iFoundry story of how they created a space for themselves inside a much larger and very rigid space was inspirational. It was the story of how educators outside of Olin learn about our methods, then find ways to bring our recommendations to life in their own programs.

The authors then explain the history of how universities were once aligned with businesses, but then failed to adjust to market pressures (brought on by entrepreneurialism, the pursuit of quality -leading to specialization- and, most significantly, the vast accessibility of information due to the internet explosion). This sets the stage for the book’s call to action for students, parents, educators, practitioners, and policy makers: change the way engineering is taught now. It may seem unnecessary, but the evolving economic climate is actually crying out for change – the right time was decades ago. It may appear like an unsolvable problem, but the results are as clear as they are commendable. And it may feel overwhelming, but Olin and the iFoundry have distilled down their years of expertise into actionable steps that any institution can take.

The rest of the book explains the process in more detail. I was amused by the extreme frequency of lists that dotted the text. I suppose it is the most effective way of structuring an argument, as well as being the way academics distil their ideas for quotation. Still, I noted them each down as I encountered them – inline, numbered, bulleted… and the lists go on! I counted 53, including Olin’s foundational ‘Bold Goals’, the original charges given to iTeam members at the iFoundry, the six minds of the Whole New Engineer, the pillars of educational transformation, and the three things that Oliners may pick two of, according to an early t-shirt.

The purpose of the book is to give insight on how to bring about change successfully, and explain and justify the necessary changes. These are captured in the five pillars of education transformation: ‘joy,’ ‘trust,’ ‘courage,’ ‘openness,’ and ‘connectedness, collaboration, and community.’ The authors propose that letting these pillars guide our instruction, we will produce the kinds of constructive education experiences that are necessary for tomorrow’s engineer. This should not be surprising to Oliners, because we live and breathe these pillars in all aspects of our lives. However, most engineering students are not so lucky. The authors detail simple and straightforward ways for teachers to alter their classroom behavior to demonstrate that they value these ideals. The changes are obvious and easy to implement, but they are extremely powerful.

All in all, it’s a great read, and I would suggest that any Oliner checks it out now, rather than in 8 months when it inevitably shows up in the shortlist for the summer book program. You’ll gain an appreciation for our college, for our methods, and for our mission. As an admissions officer, I’ve observed that the applicant world is split into two groups – those who have never heard of our mission, and those who are transfixed by it. The world is large, and Olin is small. We need to continue to spread our lessons. The college may be built, but the opportunities to build colleges are far from gone. Now more than ever, we need to tackle the nebulous questions: “What should an engineer know?” and “What can we do now to change the way engineering is taught?”

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