Pampered Hamsters

I came to Olin to be a part of a curricular experiment – and with it I accepted the fact that not every classroom experience I would have would be perfect, that my resulting knowledge about technical concepts might not be bullet-proof, and that explaining my education to friends or future employers might be tough. I’ve enjoyed co-designing courses with professors here and engaging in conversations about Olin’s future – and thankfully, many of my initial fears did not come to light. I feel just as competent, technically, as any of my close friends graduating from other universities and without a lot of the jadedness to boot.

It hurts my heart, however, to see friends and peers who actively detest the curricular development piece of the Olin experience. I can’t blame them – as someone who is looking for an untraditional, quality, engineering education, they were presented with only a handful of choices marketed to them in high school. At Candidates Weekend, the idea of experimenting is sold to us as merely a supplement to a main course of superior education. The Princeton Review rankings reflect the quality of the education, not the creativity of the institution.

When we arrive, it becomes immediately clear, however, of our role as “hamsters.” From Design Nature teaming assignments to the Linearities; from iSIM to 6 Microbes; the ever-evolving nature of our curriculum is clear and students get front-row seats to it all. For anyone arriving at Olin expecting a top-notch education, they will receive it with a healthy dose of struggle and frustration if they aren’t willing to embrace or accept being an active participant in curricular development.

At Olin, we have a lot to be thankful for: professors that actually care about us and our future, a student affairs team that actually knows our names, dorms that are extremely livable, plenty of hands-on experiences, a club for most passions, frequent student events, an admissions process we can be involved in… Perhaps it is our high standard of living, the relative luxury of our lives, that allows for a culture of saltiness with regards to our experience in courses which challenge us to be active participants in our learning. We are extremely pampered – deadlines are flexible, grades are flexible, everyone is respectful to the point of passive – and this creates a feeling of “deserving.” Just as in our day-to-day life, we want to get all of the goodness of curricular experimentation without being a part of the process of actually making it good. We deserve a frustration-free curriculum. We deserve a registration period that fits our expectations every semester. We deserve to walk into interviews and have the people on the other side of the table recognize all of our course titles. We deserve perfection.

This is dangerous. Olin and its quality only exists because of the mission to constantly evolve the curriculum and experiment with engineering education. The classes we love best are only the result of students like us struggling a few years prior and offering feedback to the professors. The new courses like Chemistry in Context and QEA only exist because our institution supports these initiatives. Olin’s acclaim only exists because of the people it has attracted and the willingness for faculty and students to participate in it. If our dissatisfaction with our courses stays dining hall banter or complaint-party fodder, then we are no better than other privileged communities in which a culture of complaining and coddling allows for a stagnation of innovation and ignorance of our differences.

We should be forced to evaluate our learning, to question concepts, to be co-conspirators in our own academic lives. If we don’t practice challenging the values, perspectives, and knowledge of others, how can we be effective at it in actual, real life? Being a college student in some ways puts us in a fabricated society in which we are afforded a lot of protection in order to experiment with our lifestyles and identities, to learn about the world, and to practice being activists for our passions. Olin is an extremely safe environment that actually creates this opportunity directly within our courses. The door is open – but we lament about the draft rather than look to see what lies beyond.

At Olin, we will become competent engineers, but that’s not the reason Olin exists – it is just a fortunate side effect. I hope that we, in our capacity as pampered hamsters while at Olin, are more willing in the future to sacrifice a bit of our comfort in order to create something amazing for others. After graduation, I hope that in our capacity as extremely privileged individuals that we are looking forward to experiencing frustration in order to make change in our society.

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