Creating Streams at Olin

Here’s a question for you: what did you learn when you sketched bugs in Parcel B with a group of your classmates during the first week of Design Nature? I’d venture to guess that your drawing skills didn’t improve much, you didn’t learn anything particularly earth-shattering about bugs, and you didn’t develop a better understanding of how to build a biomimetic hopping toy. So why was the assignment important?

Less than a week into the design curriculum at Olin, you were exposed to the idea that design doesn’t happen in isolation; it takes into account both context and society. You can’t just sit in your design studio building Solidworks models; you have to interact with the outside world. That’s the contextual part – design interacts with, depends on, and is inspired by the real world. You’re also required to work with your peers. That’s the social part – design isn’t individual; it depends on collaboration and communication even within an individual project.

A year and a half later, UOCD spirals back to the idea that design doesn’t happen in isolation. This time you spend the entire semester interfacing with a group of people to understand them and how to design to help them. You’re studying a different part of the design process than you did in Design Nature, but what you’re doing is still rooted in the idea that design can’t happen solely in the studio.

The way design works at Olin is starkly different from the way a traditional engineering education is structured. Ben Linder uses the word “layers” to describe the traditional curricular approach: students start by taking a math class, layer a physics class on top of that knowledge, and then eventually have the opportunity to take an engineering design class. He uses the word “stream” to describe what happens in Olin’s design curriculum: students take several classes about design, and each subsequent one builds on a set of core ideas.

Ben feels that a layer curriculum focuses on credentials and on authority. In that kind of environment, students are treated like they are unqualified until they complete the last layer, meaning students often don’t identify as engineers until graduation. By contrast, a stream curriculum makes each student a “professional engineer from day one,” which University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) refers to as ‘The Olin Effect.’ You come into the design stream an engineer, you are appreciated and respected throughout the curriculum, and you leave an engineer with more experience.

Ben says it’s “much healthier to engage a subject at an intermediate level over a long period of time than to have an intense introduction that ends early.” He thinks that streams might be a better model for the way people learn: we probably don’t build knowledge in layers; instead, we fit new pieces of information into the framework of what we already know, drawing as many connections between concepts as we can (if you’re curious about this, check out Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Constructivism). If you’re learning math, physics, and design at the same time in the same course, you can’t help but draw connections between them, but if you take math and physics during your first year and design during your fourth, it might be difficult to see how they relate.

Ben also believes that a stream curriculum facilitates a culture of feedback – in his words, “if you think experienced people know what’s best, you don’t ask students for feedback, but if [students] have standing, then you can take advantage of the most obvious fact… there is no other group of people who know the experience better than the students who are currently having the experience.”

Most engineering schools don’t cover much design, especially beyond engineering design, which left Olin no choice other than to experiment with how to teach it. By contrast, analysis is traditionally a big part of engineering education, so there’s a well-established, content-driven process for teaching it. Just look at the course titles – any engineering educator knows what you mean when you say you’re taking “Dynamics” or “Differential Equations”. The established way might not be the best way, though: Mark Somerville thinks a stream model could benefit the analysis curriculum as well.

Mark and other faculty members have been thinking about analysis education at Olin. Mark observes that students tend to graduate with more confidence in their design skills than in their analysis skills. He attributes that outcome in part to the the design stream, which he views as one of Olin’s real successes – it’s a “set of experiences students have over the course of four years that explicitly relate to each other, enabling them to build a set of capacities”. He thinks there might be a way to do something similar with a different set of courses.

They hope to run an experiment next year which allows first-years to opt into a 16 credit pilot version of an analysis stream (8 in the spring, 8 the following fall) to replace Linearity I and II, the physics foundation course, and either Dynamics or Signals and Systems. Ideally, the analysis stream might extend beyond two semesters, but a two-semester pilot makes sense both because it doesn’t interfere with too much of the curriculum and because an experiment with a one-year duration can run a complete cycle every year.

Our goal is to start a conversation about what continuing to explore the concept of streams would do to the way we think about Olin’s curricular experience. Streams might not need to be academic: imagine if you took Engineering for Humanity, Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship, and rounded if off with involvement in SERV. Could that be considered a “service stream”? What streams do you think already exist, even if we haven’t thought of them that way? How would the curriculum change if every course was part of a stream?