The Crucial Role of Project Teams in Engineering Education at Olin

Hello, Olin community! For those who may not know me, my name is Ishaan, and I’m currently a senior. Many of you might recognize me as the previous project manager for Olin Electric Motorsports and a passionate advocate for project teams on our campus. As I near the end of my college journey, I’d like to share my thoughts on the significant role of project teams as someone who has led one.

Olin’s unique approach to engineering education is why I’m here. The first two years of coursework focus on leveling the playing field and providing students with essential technical knowledge used in real-world engineering through a project based curriculum.

However, there are some challenges. Course budgets often constrain the depth of project-based learning we initially came to Olin for. In an effort to simplify the curriculum, some course content gets cut, resulting in limited opportunities for in-depth exploration. This situation becomes even more pronounced in the junior and senior years, where there’s a shortage of advanced engineering courses. While I understood that Olin’s project-based philosophy might mean sacrificing certain depth, I didn’t expect course cutbacks and budget constraints.

Furthermore, most classes at Olin are just one semester long, which leaves little time to dive deeply into project details beyond the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) stage. This constraint often prevents students from diving into the details of a project.

The shortcomings of our classes have prompted many students to turn to project teams as a valuable learning opportunity. Project teams offer extended timelines that allow us to move beyond the MVP phase, providing the resources to undertake significant engineering projects and fill in the gaps missed by classes.

While the prototyping and MVP skills gained from coursework are invaluable for early-stage design, creating a product often demands a level of detail that goes beyond what is typically covered in a classroom setting at Olin. The current semester structure doesn’t allow students ample time to practice this detail-oriented engineering.

My involvement in project teams has been instrumental in securing internships. The skills I’ve acquired in these teams have proven indispensable in real-world engineering environments. In interviews, I find that I talk more about my project team experiences, as these projects offer a level of detail that surpasses most class projects.

Project teams, such as Olin Electric Motorsports, have a clear goal in mind. In our case, we aim to create an inclusive learning environment by building a formula-style electric race car. The complexity of this endeavor is both challenging and exciting due to how integrated it is. 

These systems present a complex engineering challenge. The integrated nature means that one system’s failure can result in missed learning opportunities for others. This is why our team may not always take extreme technical risks or engage in groundbreaking innovations. Balancing innovation with technical risk mitigation, such as having backups from previous years, is an invaluable lesson to carry forward.

One of the biggest learning opportunities from project teams is the leadership and teamwork skills you gain. Most projects in Olin classes are teams of 5 people. On Olin Electric Motorsports last year, we had 62 students, and this year 81. The leadership team learns how to manage all these students to ensure that both their goals and the team’s goals are achieved. They learn about motivating others, teaching others, and managing the resources of the team. It’s an experience unlike anything else. 

Many of the decisions we make as a team may seem corporate from the outside, but there’s a reason why so many members stay on our team. The leadership team every year has to figure out how to provide the best learning opportunities to its members. Sometimes that means remaking a project so everyone can learn from it. Competition is a large motivator for students as well, even when we didn’t drive our car at competition, members were excited to work on the next car based on what they learned from going to competition. 

While project teams offer incredible learning opportunities, they can also demand a significant investment of time and energy, sometimes taking a toll on students’ mental health. Last year, I dedicated 10-30 hours per week to Olin Electric Motorsports on top of a 16-credit workload for both semesters. This strain led me to work on making project team involvement more sustainable by collaborating with the Academic Review Board and other stakeholders.

In summary, project teams are a vital component of engineering education at Olin College. They fill the gaps left by traditional coursework and provide students with invaluable hands-on experience, enabling them to excel in real-world engineering environments. The incredible challenge they pose makes them a rewarding experience for their members. We need to continue redefining the project team experience so that it is fulfilling but also sustainable.

+ posts

Leave a Reply