‘Hi’ From Graham

Hello from an alum! I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time at Olin since I graduated, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to watch the community grow and grow with each passing year. Things have already changed so much, I’m excited for you and all of the opportunities at your disposal now, especially the ones you’ve chosen to make for yourselves.
I remember the first few weeks of the academic year, and how overwhelming it was (especially for those of you careening out of orientation) to pick and choose just what to actually do, out of all the exciting possibilities.
Well, I’d like to offer some help on this front. I can’t tell you what you want to do, but I did compile a few lists of Olin opportunities during my alumni weekend visit that I can share. Note: The information herein may not be 100% accurate – *****
Getting around: Did you know the MBTA has a city bus that travels from Needham Center to the green line? The 59 is about a 25-minute walk from Olin, or a 5-minute drive/bike ride. You can transfer to the 70 at the terminus to go straight to Central Square, or the 71 to get to Harvard Square. Careful – it stops running around 7pm! However, Marco Morales has informed me that taking UberPool from downtown to Olin can cost under $20, and a regular Uber for not much more! Could be worth it for the right-sized groups, and saves you the last-minute helpme. Depending on where you’re going and your schedule, the Commuter Rail leaves Wellesley even on the weekends, and later into the evening, and costs the same as a T fare + gas money to your lift. The Babson shuttle has its perks, as does the Wellesley college Peter Pan bus. It also may be worth your time to get Olin Van trained in case your club wants to take an outing, but nobody has a car.
Food: Short but sweet. The dining hall will gladly pack you a lunch if you ask a day in advance. Talk to a cashier! Trim dining hall opens at 9am on Saturdays, if you’re awake then, but 11 on Sundays, so no dice there. The Lulu Chow Wang dining hall at Wellesley admits all Olin students – just write your Student ID number on their sign-in sheet. Since the two colleges have different Thanksgiving and Spring breaks, this might leave you a little less stranded over the holidays than you’d have been otherwise!
Resources: I knew about some of these during my time at Olin, learned about others during happy chance encounters with Dakota Nelson and Meg McCauley, then filled in the list thanks to ideation with Alex Crease, and Ryan Louie – thanks all! So, did you know that all Olin Community members receive free entry to the ICA, MFA, and Isabella Stewart Gardiner museums in Boston? Have you tried the frisbee golf course? It’s highly regarded by serious players as a top-quality course, and I recall one man come through whose mission was to play a course in all 50 states… and he chose ours to represent Massachussets! In that vein, many Babson and Wellesley sports are open to Oliners, including very low-commitment intramurals, or simply the Babson Gym and rink or the Wellesley boat house. All three are definitely worth a visit, if only just to say you’ve been.
In a similar vein, poke your noses into a welding session, the ECE and MECH:E stockrooms, and your faculty/NINJA’s/writing tutor’s office hours. For this last one, you really don’t need to come up with an excuse or reason to be there. They’ve set the time aside specifically to talk with you… who knows what great conversations might arise! Similarly, organizations such as SWE and the Foundry exist to help you. SWE is successful when people who didn’t realize they wanted to go to conferences get to go to conferences. The Foundry has stand-up Fridays to help motivate, inspire, and facilitate projects by Oliners. Talk to them even if you don’t think you’re interested in presenting or starting your own business. There’s lots for you there!
Another organization that exists purely for your satisfaction is the Library. This is a cool one, because they have a ton of money to throw at making your studying/sitting/being experience as positive as possible. You can work in all kinds of spaces in the library. Meet, ideate, confer, pair-program, play music, chill… you name it, and there’s a nicely curated place for it! I also personally believe that you’re mistaken if you don’t have at least one library book out on loan (in a rotation!) for your entire time at Olin. You can’t read more if you don’t have something to read! Check out inter-library loans for even more options.
Community: This is secretly the best part of the list. Congrats for finding it! In addition to being enjoyable in its own right, building relationships with other people makes you a more effective person. Talking with people in your community gets you input, insight, and influence that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And don’t for a second think that you’re putting the other party out by getting to know one another! Alumni set up the Banter program so we could reconnect with our beloved campus. Stay tuned for the launch in November – Email me for the FAQ. Staff and faculty are delighted to get to know the students on a more personal level. That’s why they run co-curriculars and come out to SAC events! Last year, Ian Hill publicized a note from Rick Miller: If he’s ever in the dining hall eating by himself, he welcomes students to sit with him. I did, the Friday of the reunion weekend. And unsurprisingly, he had a very interesting perspective to share! Finally, there’s me. If you know me, you should know you can always reach out to me about whatever you’re up do/dealing with. If you don’t know me, maybe you could. I try to know a lot about how to get things done at Olin, so I might be able to help you out. What’s in it for me? I want to stay connected and help others connect. You can help me achieve that just by saying hi.

Building Bridges at Olin

As a recent alum and staff member on campus, I’ve had the opportunity to- and in fact have been asked to- spend some time thinking about how to build bridges between different parts of the community (Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, Parents), as well as within those groups. We’re such a small community that any distance between these groups almost feels magnified – we are our each other’s support network. Working on bringing the community closer together was my favourite thing to do back when I was a student, so it’s really a joy for me now that they’re paying me to do it! Well, these past few months have been a little busy for me, but now I’m back. And I’m very interested in hearing your feedback on (and/or support for) my thoughts.

First of all, let’s look at bridges that are currently in place. Advising families are structured to give students and faculty a point of contact over the course of the semester on a professional and personal level. SAC invites staff and faculty to major events like Dare to Diva and Spirit Week, and organizes kickouts to really encourage this bonding. Also in that vein, the seniors have a Faculty/Staff party at the end of the year. More recently, Banter was set up to connect older alumni with students on a professional level. At last month’s SLACfest, students and alumni worked out a number of new initiatives to improve alumni-campus connections, including an alumni-written newsletter filled with interviews of on-campus Oliners. The Student-Staff Bridges program is a low-intensity conduit for conversation between these different communities. And, thanks to a push from parents, LinkedIn is now a viable way to reach out to parents in different parts of the country for all kinds of assistance.

Building bridges is intended to be a gratifying experience – it feels good to learn about people who do cool things and are part of the same ‘tribe.’ But efforts often flounder or feel ineffective. The reason is simple: if one half of the interaction doesn’t find sufficient personal benefit, they won’t prioritize the connection. At some level, we all ask: “What’s in it for me?” They might go out and participate just for the sake of the other party… but they have lots of other things that maybe feel more important. So is there space for these efforts in a community as busy as Olin’s?

Definitely! Having solid connections with members of our small community in different spheres actually makes our lives easier: When we know and understand one another better, we can be more effective in all of our other efforts. We just need to understand how to build those connections in a manageable way. So looking ahead, what do we have and what do we need?

I’ll generalize: Students have skills, enthusiasm, and time (if properly compensated by credits, cash, or chow). The key to connecting with students is to a) do what they’re already doing, with no added effort on their part; b) make their work more effective or efficient, c) pay them, or d) create a compelling interaction for them that is, itself, worthwhile. Faculty and certain staff are connection powerhouses. They have big ideas and the resources to deploy them, as well as the incentive. What they generally don’t have is time. To successfully connect with this group, be prepared to have much of the engagement proceed independently, with the contact points being intense, brief bursts. Other staff, alumni, and parents simply want access to, and connection with, the community. Actually, some don’t, but I’m ignoring them for the purposes of this article. Those who do will spend time, as well as the resources available to them, to give back if they feel that their efforts are a) having the desired impact and b) appreciated. Unfortunately, this group also lacks the ability to deploy effectively on campus.

And what about the subset of Olin community members who are both staff and alum, are on the StudentEvents mailing list, and are a contact for the Parent Advisory Board? What does that subset have? Well, it has a single member: just me! And I have a wish: For more successful bridgings to take place. What do I need? People I can help! I can be a ‘connector’ all on my own for you – if you have plans but you don’t know who, in another group, you should talk to, please feel free to ask me. And I’m willing to put the time in to work on executing larger-scale projects in this space. I have ideas; you have ideas. Let’s chat!

Build Day 2015, Anyone?

When I came back to Olin after leading the Build Day team last spring, I was asked many times whether or not the event would happen again in some form this year. It came from First Years, eager to contribute to this community-building event that drew them to Olin. It came from staff members, fondly remembering the time spent with students exploring exciting activities. It came from faculty members, off-handedly recalling the passion and energy that makes working at Olin so engaging. In reply, I’ve always said: It could definitely happen… if you want it to. If a small group of dedicated Architects lay down the groundwork, the community will fill in the rest. And this year’s event would be easier to run than either of the past events by far!

Here’s why: when Build Day was first conceived in the fall of 2012, the Architect team had their work cut out for them. They had no clue what they were getting into. They were coordinating high-stakes projects while orchestrating a campus-wide event on a scale that hadn’t been seen at Olin in a long while. And they needed to convince the entire Olin community, from bottom to top, to get on board. It was quite a challenge. But the team rose to it, and Olin embraced Build Day 2013 as being a definitive part of our culture. The community wouldn’t need convincing again!

Of course, they didn’t work all of the details perfectly. They left that task to the subsequent year’s Architect team. Build Day 2014 took a once-tested process, a lot of feedback, and a set of extremely high expectations for success, and made a formalized version of the previous year’s experiment. All while, again, taking on major projects and choreographing a major event. It was a big job. But this formula worked, and Build Day 2014 succeeded in establishing a process by which future events could be run.

So, the two ground-breaking Build Day Architect teams left us with two helpful legacies: a receptive community and a simple, replicable process. Teams would be able to put on a welcome, relatively easy iteration of Build Day for years to come. But alas, those teams left one other legacy on their way out: the impression that being an Architect means struggle, exhaustion, and stress. After making Build Day as easy as possible to run for this year’s team, these two groups of Architects made it seem like it would, instead, be prohibitively difficult!

Well, take heart, Oliners. Getting things like this off the ground takes two years of hard work. Do it once, then do it better, and only then will it finally become easier. As a member and then leader of past year’s Architect teams, I promise that so much of the work has already been done, and so many lessons have been learned, that Build Day could definitely still happen this year… if you really want it to.

Be sure to check out:
www.twitter.com/BuildOlin for projects and photos from 2014, and think about it!

The Coming Registration

A lot of Oliners are overworked. You may already have observed this. The fact is, even though we don’t compete for class rank, we do keep up an atmosphere that glorifies the near-burn-out. We praise the over-achiever, and we marvel at how the people who pack everything in manage to pull it off. And it’s not surprising that we do so. But this is a reaction that occurs – and has in our past occurred – without proper scrutiny. And there are repercussions to this mentality, so it’s long past time that we take a close look at it. It’s long past time that we examine the ways that these choices are affecting our lives and the lives of those around us.

This article is timed specifically to incite a moment of thoughtfulness when you register for classes this month. I spoke with Jessica Townsend, the Associate Dean for Curriculum and Academic Programs, about the issue of students enrolling in too many courses, and our conversation spanned a variety of topics – describing common pitfalls of overloaded students; weighing the value of class-work to time otherwise spent learning; and the unexpected emergent properties of the system. Jessica summed up the conversation neatly: “Four classes a semester should provide you with a pretty fricking stellar experience. We designed our curriculum for 32 classes.”

Yet, Jessica sees the same narratives over and over. Students overload. They lose touch with the clubs and activities they enjoy. They perform worse in their other classes. They burn out and end up dropping a class, no farther ahead than when they started. I had these experiences as a student too. In my three semesters immediately after Pass/No Record, I took 61 degree credits in addition to clubs, co-curriculars, and passionate pursuits. Each and every semester, I had one ‘dump’ class that I barely spent time on, and hardly got any learning out of. I also couldn’t really delve into the material in my other classes – the ones I did care about. I remember, everything had a priority level, from assignments to friendships to sleep. I visualize it as running around, handing out spoons from a little jar – a spoon for every little task. But sometimes, you have too many tasks, and not enough spoons! Then you have to go off and do whatever it is you do to get spoons back.

This happens to all of us. This is the status quo. But it’s not a good thing. It isn’t a desirable thing. What if we each committed to change it? First of all, we’d be doing ourselves, our teammates, and our teachers a service in our other classes. Just because you’re enrolled in a class doesn’t mean that you’re really engaging with it. In classes you care less about, try to find something to connect within the syllabus instead of mindlessly chugging through the material. Talk to the teacher. Work something out with classmates. Work smart, and be happier. You are in charge of your learning. And we all only have so many spoons.

Now, many students are able to overload without running themselves ragged. But they still are making a trade-off in the sort of learning they are engaged in. Yes, Olin’s faculty is incredible and their classes are both innovative and intriguing. However, not all learning can, or should, come from the classroom. Jessica told me: “When I see the time and effort that people spend on academic teams, independent studies, passionate pursuits, research with faculty, personal projects… I see that Olin isn’t just about the classes. I think you lose the opportunity to engage in these activities when you take too many classes.” One alum a few years out told Jessica: “HPV was by far the most valuable thing I did at Olin.” And in my own experience, the time I spent outside of the classroom working on leading, coordinating, and empowering student teams brought me much more joy and fulfilment then my academic work did. After returning from my LOA, I stayed almost as busy as I was before I left, but this time, my work was almost entirely extra-curricular. Of course, I’m somewhat of an anomaly, since I knew that I wouldn’t go into engineering. But the point transcends disciplines. You will be glad to do what you love, and you will reap the rewards from it.

Of course, I know that there are certain realities that we have to accommodate. There are limited course offerings. There are scheduling issues. There are limited spaces in certain classes. Course registration isn’t always pretty, and occasionally, we feel that we have to try to scratch out a space to fill our needs. The add/drop process is a complex system, and as such, the behavior of the constituent components creates certain unexpected emergent properties. For instance, when students hedge their bets by signing up for five classes while intending to take four this puts pressure on the faculty to teach more sections of the fundamental classes (more commonly selected as extras than special topics). Certain faculty members get trapped offering these standard classes semester after semester, which a) is not so interesting for them, b) is bad for more specialized majors, and c) reduces the overall diversity of offerings. In any case, Jessica says that she sends a “don’t panic” email out every semester: Apparently “enough people change their minds about that 4th class” that students end up getting their desired course load without really having to game the system.

That isn’t to say there are no valid reasons to overload (achieving the sustainability certificate, applying to pre-med programs, preparing for study away, making up withdrawn credits, are the ones that immediately came to mind). And everybody’s situation is different. I grant this. Still, with so many forces pushing us to do more, more, more, it’s important to realize there is another side to the issue that I strongly urge you to consider: Do less. Do what you love. Do it well. You shouldn’t need to justify doing the intended amount. You should need to justify doing more.

So, please take the time to consider, when you’re signing up for classes during registration: You only have so many hours in the week. You can choose to spend your extra hours on an extra class. Or, you can spend them doing anything else that you care deeply about instead. This is the decision you’re making. This is how it works. Of course, at the end of the day, if you are happy with your choice, then I’m happy for you. Good luck with the semester – I hope you avoid running out of spoons!

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?”

Make Change! Build Olin!

Olin, this article is your call to action. This article is your mandate to do something. To make a difference. To have an impact! It’s up to you to take personal responsibility to better your environment, and I invite you to start right away. Tomorrow is Build Day, when Faculty, Students, Staff, and Alumni are invited to celebrate the Olin Community together. It will be a great chance for you to put your change-making abilities to the test!

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Popping Olin’s [Social] Bubbles

A lot has changed since I first arrived at Olin in the fall of 2009. There are so many things to celebrate and remember fondly. I actually couldn’t even begin to list them, because I’d run out of pages before I ran out of memories and that’s not the point I want to make with this article (though it would be nice). No, I want to say this: I have just one more semester at Olin, and I want to use it to help make this place better for us all.

Before I say anything further, I’d like to recognize the many outstanding examples of closeness, camaraderie, and understanding between students, faculty, and staff. For instance, last week, I played SpaceTeam with my SCOPE advisor, there are a staggering number of co-curriculars this semester, Build Day is a cool thing that happens in May… and I’m only scratching the surface.

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Fix-It (Our Newest Society)

One of the things that really sets Olin apart from your average institution is the remarkably strong set of community values that we all enjoy. You can see our honour code in action when we respect one another’s belongings in shared spaces, when we build and share cool projects, or when we cook and share heaps of delicious treats with other students.

But something not-so-nice happens after our good deeds have gone down. All of a sudden, piles of clutter, malfunctioning oscilloscopes, or empty plates become Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP). Think about our kitchens, our stock-rooms, our lounges. Have you ever walked through them and thought to yourself “Yuck, I hope someone cleans this up,” and then carried on with your day? Maybe you accidentally made things a little more cluttered before you left. A dish in the kitchen drying rack. An emptied tray in the stockroom. A stack of semi-useful stuff in the lounges. A drop in the bucket, compared to the mess that’s already there. I know I’ve done it. Let’s be honest: It would be overwhelming to fix that mess myself. I’m busy. I didn’t make it. I’m not responsible. If I worried about every little thing I saw that needed attention, I’d explode!

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Advice on Olin, Life & Love

This past year, I put a lot of time and energy into finding the answers to the question “How can I get the most out of Olin, life, and love?” In last year’s SERV auction, two sophomores won an item donated by the entire class of 2013 in which the then-seniors promised to address any query to the best of their collective ability. This was the question posed, and it struck a chord with us all. Who hasn’t asked themselves at some point: “How can I be sure I’m getting things right?” Really, how can one tell? Dear reader, how do you?

I took it upon myself to track down my friends and peers in order to collect each of their responses. I can’t share what they said (it’s a trade secret, you see), but I can say what insights I gained from the process. It was an enlightening process – most SERV auction experiences are, and I suggest that any and all Oliners engage in it – and it highlighted to me the true worth of giving advice.

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We Need You to Build Olin

It should take twice Olin’s population to achieve everything that we manage to accomplish in a year. Somehow, astoundingly, despite our limited size and the vastness of our collective responsibilities, the Olin community manages time and time again to successfully coordinate and run our programs, organizations, think-tanks, and events, all the while continuing to invent, discover, and thrive. Our campus teems with activity and our establishment thrums with diligence, the happy product of our collective vision for a prosperous Olin. Working together, giving of our time, effort, insight, wisdom, enthusiasm, and energy, we keep our College advancing along its exceptional trajectory.

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