The Return to Happiest

4 years ago, I was an impressionable senior in high school sitting in the Norden Auditorium anxiously waiting for Candidates Weekend to begin. President Rick Miller got up to the podium to give his welcoming speech. I don’t remember much about what he said, but one thing that stuck out to me was a statistic he used. According to the Princeton Review, in 2020, we were ranked number 4 “Students Study the Most” and ranked number 14 for “Happiest Students”. Normally, I would say rankings aren’t that important, but Princeton Review does a great job of surveying students and using those results to determine their rankings. We were the only college on both of those lists and talking to students throughout the rest of my candidates weekend experience, it was clear that they were happy to be here and really enjoyed the work they were doing. Now we are no longer on the “Happiest Students” list and we are ranked 1st for “Students Study the Most”. What’s changed?

Olin College has never been perfect by any means, but that was part of the appeal that was advertised to me during the admissions process. Olin College was continually reinventing itself in a collaborative process to improve engineering education and the school as a whole. I believe that collaborative design process has been lost and been replaced by planning behind closed doors. 

One of the most unique classes we take at Olin is called Collaborative Design and it’s a part of the reason I came to this school. In the class, we practice user oriented design by interviewing people in a user group, and understanding everything about them. We then work to create a solution for a problem they have. We codesign the solution with them during repeated feedback sessions to understand what could make our solution more useful for them. This class takes a significant amount of nuance and understanding of our stakeholders to create something for them. That collaboration that’s critical in the design process taught at Olin hasn’t been implemented in policy creation at Olin.  

It’s important to look at the financials of the college. According to a member of the board of trustees, Olin College runs an 8 million dollar deficit per year. That’s approximately 20 thousand dollars per student per year. We have an endowment that is a large sum of money that gains interest every year, but if we draw more than the interest minus inflation from the endowment, the purchasing power of the endowment decreases and will lead to the college running out of money in the long run. This is a major challenge that the college is facing and I believe to come up with solutions, we need to engage in a similar process to what we did in Collaborative Design by making sure we understand all the stakeholders involved before creating plans rather than announcing plans and apologizing half-heartedly or not at all after the fact. 

There have been a string of “solutions” that have been rolled out in my time at Olin that address this problem. In my first year, there were layoffs that impacted employees of the college without student input. In my second year, to fit all the students coming back from a semester or year away from school due to COVID they built walls in suite common spaces so we could accommodate an additional person in each suite. They also converted some rooms to triples all without student input. They claimed the walls would be temporary, but then said that the walls were here to stay due to financial reasons without student input. In my third year, they tried doing codesign with students to determine whether Babson students should live in the dorms. Many students voiced that feedback and we were told that the proposal didn’t go through due to our feedback. The proposal didn’t go through because Babson no longer had a need to house students on our campus, and this year, it was announced unexpectedly that students from the first floor of East Hall would be relocated to make space for Babson students that would live in our dorms. This decision was again made without student input. It was just recently announced that the incoming class will be 110 students and that there will be triples for students. This decision was made without student input. When talking to administrators, students have been asked to talk about decisions made at Olin using “we” not “they,” but it’s very difficult to do that when we don’t feel represented in the process.

This trend of not soliciting student input and working to codesign proposals wasn’t how Olin always was. I don’t think that most of these proposals were inherently bad and they make sense given our financial situation. The frustrating part has been the lack of input from students and the ability to codesign. 

In the year before I came to Olin, a project to redesign the 1st floor of the MAC was put forward. Students looked at this plan and found that there were significant problems with this proposal. They presented these problems to President Miller and other administrators and the project was then canceled. That’s the last time I believe students had a significant voice on campus in codesigning what Olin is.

Talking to alumni, one of the ways students were involved in the past is through having representation on committees that would make decisions around campus. It was these committees that made decisions about most things related to the school including student life, academics, admissions, etc. Many of these committees have been dissolved, but the structures used by committees remain in groups like the Academic Review Board and Space Force where students have representation. By forming many committees like these, it would prevent planning behind closed doors and allow students to have a voice. 

Why do I think we’re no longer on the happiest students list? I think it’s because the collaboration and co-design that this college preaches isn’t practiced inside the school. I think it’s because decisions that affect student life continue to be made without student input. I can’t speak for every student on campus, but I think most of us want to help with the problems our college faces. We don’t want our college to run out of money. We just want to be a part of the solution creation process like we were promised we would be when we chose to come here. I think we as a community need to work together to continually reinvent Olin so that we can tackle these new challenges while not sacrificing what makes Olin a place for all of us. 

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.