GCSP and the Learning Continuum

Before arriving at Olin, we had heard about the kind of flexibility and experimentation built into Olin’s curriculum, best exemplified at the time by Olin’s learning continuum and its frequently changing course catalog. In the spring of 2006 Olin went through a curriculum redesign exercise that involved the entire community. As students going through that experience, we fell in love with the idea that we had genuine ownership, control, and responsibility for our educational experience. In fact, being a part of this process was itself learning outside the bounds of the course catalog. However, by the time we were seniors at Olin, and having spent a good deal of time thinking about learning, it was clear that the concept of a learning continuum was still underdeveloped, and students’ experiences remained incompletely described.

Olin’s original curriculum documents (e,g., “Once Upon a College” or “The Olin College Curriculum — A Play in 5 Acts”) describe individual students’ Learning Plans as one of the five primary ‘wondrous’ elements of the Olin student experience. Oh yes indeed. #Martello. Learning Plans were meant to be a collection of personal objectives, be those curricular or affective in nature, and they were intended to serve as the basis for one’s portfolio of work. This idea of formalized Learning Plans was something that resonated with us when we first read through Olin’s curricular script. These plans seemed to capture part of what we felt was missing from Olin’s Learning Continuum, but they sadly never made it out of Olin’s first full year.

So, where are we on this front today? One of the first stops on an Olin student tour is by the wooden waterfall to explain a poster of Olin’s Learning Continuum. This poster screams, “learning happens beyond just credit-bearing courses, and we actually recognize it here!” Despite its holistic intent, however, this picture fails to capture the full Olin learning experience. Where on this poster would we place dining hall discussions, LOAs, Interesting Conversations, Olin startup experiences, or any of the many other things Olin students passionately pursue? How else could we express the many learning paths students explore while at Olin in a way that feels more complete than a collection of line items referenced on a transcript?

We may now be standing at the brink of something new here. Just as new generations of Oliners have revised the Honor Code, CORe, the Foundry, and many other aspects of the community in the spirit of continuous improvement, there is an opportunity to reflect on the student learning experience, and decide what an updated Learning Continuum might be. We spent some time thinking about this our senior year with Zhenya and several other Olin students, and while we maybe didn’t fully answer the challenge, our hope is that others will take it up and iterate on this idea again.

Our senior year, President Miller announced the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, a call to rally engineering education around challenges and global themes that needed solving. The Grand Challenge themes felt like an opportunity to showcase how Olin students identify with real world problems that need solving, and how our curriculum and community helps support exploration of these interests. To start, the challenges offered us a way to frame learning at Olin from any individual student’s perspective — “What problems do I want to help solve?”

A second goal was to support students in thoughtful reflections spanning their four years, helping progressively build up a portfolio. As it turns out, essentially every Olin student completed the core requirements of GCSP, often through existing Olin courses and other learning experiences. Just ‘completing’ this experience didn’t feel right, and for this reason our initial charter proposed additional requirements around reflection and portfolios as a way to connect together through narrative all the amazing experiences students were already having at Olin.

Imagine if every Olin student was recorded answering the same half dozen questions or so about their learning experiences and goals for them to review and reflect on each year. Now imagine that in a few years, after Olin has amassed hundreds of GCSP portfolios and reflections, an Olin student is interested in helping solve the same problem you were interested in solving while you were at Olin. That future Olin student might have access to portfolios and reflections of students passionate about similar challenges. Olin would benefit from an improved ability to demonstrate the richness and variety of each Olin student’s learning experience, highlighting our curriculum’s emphasis on real world themes and challenges. This sharing of portfolios, and connections between students and alumni through grand challenges also feels consistent with the collaborative spirit that is a part of Olin’s community.

So, you’ve heard a bit about what we felt were important elements of an updated model for student learning for Olin — thematic connectivity to real world problems and thoughtful reflection. Our hope is that people continue to think about how to make personal learning plans a part of the Olin experience, because despite GCSP only existing for our final year at Olin, the process of creating our portfolios yielded realizations that shape our work every day. Selfishly we ask that you take up the charge of updating GCSP and learning plans to fit your experience, in part because we would love to see a fresh take on the learning experience explained at Olin, but also because these plans wove into ways for alumni to participate in the community as challenge mentors and portfolio reviewers! Consider this as us alums fulfilling a part of Olin’s ‘Do Something’ clause. Tag, you’re it!

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!

Free Speech Has No Limits

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo magazine attacks, I read an op-ed piece by David Brooks (“I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” Jan. 8, 2015) of the New York Times containing something that really made me think. Mr. Brooks opens his article with “The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: if they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds.” This statement terrified me – because it was right in front of my face and I didn’t notice it until reading that article.

Colleges have devolved from bastions of free thought which encourage the challenging social norms to citadels of groupthink and arbiters of what is culturally acceptable. Multiple articles (one example appearing in the Wall Street Journal on May 12, 2014 – “IMF’s Lagarde Won’t Speak at Smith, Part of a Growing List; Douglas Belkin) have been published recently about colleges disinviting speakers upon pressure from students or faculty. These speakers had been invited by a group of students who wanted to hear from them, but in some cases, these speakers were disinvited because they had said some truly reprehensible things. That does not, however, mean that they should be inhibited from speaking in front of a group that wants to hear them. To allow someone to say repulsive things does not constitute endorsement of their position. To attempt to inhibit (legally or socially) their ability to present their message does constitute censorship of an even more insidious kind than what the state could ever pull off.

The most common attempted rebuttal I have heard is that we must allow people to speak, but we do not have to give them a platform. This is true – however, we also have no right to make moves to take away their platform. This is capitalism at its most basic: the marketplace of ideas. If there are people who want to hear the idea, no matter how reprehensible it is, to intervene and attempt to remove that individual’s platform is a fundamental wrong. By all means, set up a neighboring platform to debate the idea you hate. Hold a rally excoriating everything that was just said by the individual you disagree with. Do not, however, attempt to stop that individual from saying what they want to.

Fascists everywhere would be heartened to learn that the modern college has finally mastered censorship – we just traded the infallibility of the state for the sanctity of feelings. One can rarely have a serious discussion without offending someone, and if we, as a culture, declare topics or positions to be taboo because they might cause offense, democracy is dead. Censorship is the genie you can never put back into the bottle. Once society gives its stamp of approval to any technique designed to limit dissent, it will balloon out of control – and that’s what pushing for platform removal is. This is not my opinion, this is a fact borne out by thousands of years of history. There is not a single instance in recorded history of a society that made dissent unacceptable and then did not spiral into a dictatorship.

The problem is not with what is currently the main target of censorship: Neo-Nazis in Europe, firebrand American pastors, vaguely racist cartoons of holy religious figures. However, it is imperative that we protect the rights to speech of the worst society has to offer. If Rush Limbaugh cannot go on the radio and froth at the mouth about abortion, if Bill Maher cannot rant against Islam, democracy is dead. Without protection for that which is most vile, no one has protection. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in Friends of Voltaire, wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This attitude, which has largely died in recent years in favor of “Sure, I guess you’re allowed to say that…,” needs to make a comeback. While we are hopefully past the days of fights to the death to defend free speech, we must go back to celebrating dissent – not agreeing with, not necessarily even giving full consideration to – but hearing, and most importantly, defending this right against all enemies, governmental and cultural.

I am not advocating here celebration of that which is said with no purpose except to offend. There are, quite rightly, provisions to limit hate speech or speech which actively incites violence. The crucial distinction we must be willing to draw here is that most offensive speech is not hate speech. There is a time and a place for all tones – both a well-argued point and a position wrapped in a heavy layer of vitriol. I am an unapologetic free speech absolutist. There is no such thing as a position so extreme or offensive that it does not merit at least being heard.

We must defend and celebrate speech of all types because none of us ever know when our most deeply held position will be the unpopular or offensive one. Anyone who supports either form of censorship (cultural or legal) is taking a remarkably shortsighted view. This is Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists…” for the modern age. Much of what is currently being censored by society is vile, horrible, and should never be put into action. However, if we allow any censorship at all, it will not be long until censorship grows like cancer and makes dissent, and therefore democracy, impossible. None of the American civil liberties movements (ending segregation, the fight for marriage equality, women’s suffrage) started as majority opinions. We must therefore always protect and advocate for free speech as if we were the minority opinion holder – or you may find that right strangely absent when you next need it.

A Puzzle by Midnight Math

midnightmathImagine a game that involves betting on the color of a single card in a standard 52-card deck. Each card is turned over one by one, and before each card is flipped, you may do one of two things:

1) Bet: If the next card is red, you earn $1. If the next card is black, you lose $1.

2) Pass: The next card is turned over and shown to you, and play continues.

Once you bet on a card, the deck is reshuffled and may play again. If you reach the end of the deck, you are forced to bet on the last card.

In a naive strategy, you could bet on the first card of each deck, winning 50% of the time and earning, on average, $0. Can you produce a better strategy, or a proof that one does not exist?

Send in your solutions (with proofs) to midnight.math@gmail.com or talk to Kevin O’Toole or Ian Hoover. If you are correct, you will be given the highest of accolades: your name mentioned here, next issue.

If It Ain’t Broke… Make It Better

Throughout my four years at Olin, I have had the privilege of participating in SERV as a general member, Honor Board as Chair, and CORe as Vice President. This means that I have also served on the Executive Board (E-Board) for two years. The E-Board is a little-known group that consists of the heads of SERV, SAC, SAO, HB, and CORe and that helps allocate the student activities fund and coordinate elections and other related activities.

In each of these positions, I have noticed things that could be changed for the better. Over time, each of the groups has done its best to tinker at the edges and make these changes where it could. For example, the election format has gotten progressively easier and more visible over time. Unfortunately, due to overly rigid charters for the organizations, this has also meant that we sometimes make changes we do not technically have the authority to make. Surprisingly enough, one of the more glaring omissions in the current CORe charter, established in 2010, is a total lack of a process for making amendments.

That’s why, starting last semester, CORe, in conjunction with the other student leadership groups, started contemplating the idea of rewriting everything from scratch. This process has produced a proposal for a new model of student government that we believe will be more flexible, streamlined, and cohesive.

The new model is summarized in the graphic at the bottom of the following page. The current model is also included for comparison. However, after months of discussions and planning, there are enough details to fill a few dozen Frankly Speaking articles (the entire proposal is twenty pages long). In this article I have chosen to include only a few of the most important details as follows:

• The E-Board has been eliminated, folding their role into the combined Student Government to help increase transparency. Since you probably didn’t even know the E-Board existed, you probably will not be bothered by its disappearance.

• SAC and SAO (renamed to Committee for Clubs and Organizations [CCO] in the proposal) have been expanded to help take some of the load off of these positions. SERV, on the other hand, has been condensed (read more about SERV’s change of structure in the following article “SERV Update and Restructuring”). The Honor Board will not change at all.

• In addition to the class representatives, five new representatives will meet directly with some of Olin’s administrative departments. These representatives will be liaisons to the Office of Student Affairs and Resources, Admissions, Marketing and Communications, Development, Family and Alumni Relations, the Collaboratory, the BOW Collaboration, Curriculum and Faculty, and Operations. This will serve to increase communication between faculty, staff, and students.

So, what will this new plan do for you? Honestly, in the short term, things will go on pretty much the same as they always have. The largest changes will be in how responsive the Student Government can be to new ideas. Hopefully, this new group can become a catalyst for communication amongst the entire Olin community.

At this point, we want to hear from you. We have collectively produced a document that outlines our intended changes in greater detail, along with the rationale behind each change, which will be sent out soon. Please, look it over and give us feedback. There will be a Town Hall meeting on Thursday, March 5th where we hope to put these changes to a vote.

Is there a change we missed? Did we change something you like? Let us know. There will be a variety of formal feedback sessions in the coming weeks – or you could just chat it up here in the dining hall. The student government might not really be broken, but we can make it better.


SERV Update and Restructuring

We’ve had a lot of conversations over the past few months and years about what service means to the Olin community. Now it’s time to address all the concerns we’ve noted time and again.

We’re proposing a complete restructuring of SERV, which you can find the details of within CORe’s restructuring proposal for Olin’s student government (read more about Olin’s change of structure to student government in the previous article “If It Ain’t Broke… Make It Better”). We’re presenting an alternative version of SERV where the current 8-person SERV Board will be condensed down to a 2-person committee consisting of a Director and Assistant Director. This doesn’t mean SERV is going away or hiding behind the scenes. It doesn’t mean service is any less important. It simply means that we’re setting up a structure to revert back to SERV’s original purpose.

As it currently stands, it is largely up to the SERV Board to generate and implement all service ideas at Olin, which has led to a warped sense of what service means to our community and placed a certain stigma around Friday Service Time. SERV’s actual role should be to facilitate and fund service clubs, organizations and activities, and we think it will be far more effective to have a 2-person committee working with a wider group of non-SERV members to revitalize service at Olin.

Oh, and about Friday Service Time – we’re proposing a name change to something, more along the lines of “Community Time” or “Community Growth Time,” in order to encompass a wider net of activities that could improve Olin as well as help the outside community. If you have any ideas for what we should rename the time to, drop us a line. If you’re unfamiliar with what Friday Service Time is, look in the course catalog on star.olin.edu at the time slot on Fridays from 3:20 – 5:00. You’ll notice it is blocked off as “Community Service.”

Now here’s the fun part! We are also using this semester to experiment with different ways to encourage service at Olin. After reflecting on feedback received last semester about Olin’s culture and what we can do to improve service awareness at Olin at the conversation with Rae-Anne Butera, the SERV Board is excited to introduce a new program we are piloting this semester: Service Pursuits. Much like the existing Passionate Pursuits program, the Service Pursuits program encourages and supports students toward pursuing their personal philanthropic interests during their time at Olin. Students choose a project, set their own goals, and develop their interests with the guidance of faculty or staff members. Then they can receive funding from SERV.

There is a wide variety of service opportunities open to Olin community members. Some opportunities are off-campus with local non-profit organizations, while others are internal, such as service to the college. Both types of projects will be considered for funding. Funding of up to $50 per student will be available each semester, and we encourage students to submit applications to the SERV Board at any time throughout the semester. The Service Pursuits application form will be emailed out today and placed in the SERV folder on Public. You can also grab a hard copy from us when we table at lunch!

In addition, we are introducing the Service Drivers mailing list: service-drivers@lists.olin.edu. This list is for student volunteers willing to provide rides for people who want to do service off campus. Students seeking rides related to performing service can send a request to the mailing list to see if anyone is available to help them with transportation.

Both of these programs are new, and we would love to hear your feedback. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, or if you just want to chat about the state of service at Olin, please email serv@lists.olin.edu.

A Conversation on Race at Olin

(Disclaimer: I hope that some of the discussions on race and future actions by Olin pertaining to race will be beneficial across the board. That said, Matt Huang’s article “Racial Challenges at Olin” speaks more specifically to challenges faced by Asian/Asian-American students here, and it’s on Frankly Speaking’s website if you would like to check it out.)

Congratulations, Olin! You did the gender thing. It’s great. But what about the race thing?

Olin’s a pretty determinedly colorblind place. Colorblind admissions, colorblind team dynamics, people here love to talk about diversity and its benefits, as long as it doesn’t involve skin color. But racial diversity is a demonstrable asset in situations that involve teamwork and creativity. Sound familiar?

A HuffPost article by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville on diversity in engineering demonstrates a common tendency to brush over matters of race. They mention it briefly, but emphasize the importance of gender, personality, and aspirational diversity. These are all good things to have, of course, but they certainly are not more important than racial diversity in a historically discriminatory field. And this refusal to talk about race and treat it as important is an unfortunate trend here at Olin.

Maybe you’d like to cut the college a little slack. After all, it is a private school, and under no obligation to be racially diverse. Except that it sort of is, especially if you read the founding precepts, or any publicity material centering on how we ‘pioneer creative innovation.’

The precepts are self-described by the F. W. Olin Foundation as “the principles upon which the College was established as well as the Foundation’s hopes for what the College will accomplish and the good that it will do.” The third precept, only surpassed by ‘must be named after Olin’ and ‘must offer only engineering,’ is this: “from among the students who qualify [academically], the College shall endeavor to develop as diverse a student community as is possible.” The first axis of diversity named is race, and the second is gender. How did we end up skimming over that first one and then awarding ourselves monumental back-pats for a 50/50 gender balance?

There is a reason I implicated Olin’s pride-in-innovation as a commitment to racial diversity. A lot of research around diversity and team performance suggests that if Olin really wants to produce the best ideas and the best teammates, it should take a hard look at diversity. Teams with variation along any axis – race, gender, even politics – outperform homogenous ones simply because different types of diversity give people unique perspectives and experiences, the lenses through which we generate ideas. Furthermore, if the variation presents visually (as race and gender often do), so much the better: not only do different identities and perspectives bring more ideas to the team, but perceived differences among teammates cause team members to think more about team topics and have deeper, more productive discussions at meetings. Especially in matters of creativity and – wait for it – innovation. Diversity is an asset, not an obligation.

Interested in reading more on this? Katherine Phillips’ article “How Diversity Makes Us Stronger” in Scientific American (online) is a good place to start.

Want to hear more? Next month’s issue of Frankly Speaking will feature a follow-up to this article.

The Invention of Video Game Cartridges

videogametriviaToday, we take it for granted that a video game system will be able to run many different games. Whether it’s through cartridges, cards, disks, or even just downloads, every device that is considered a proper gaming console (and many others) will have a library that increases over the lifespan of the system. However, this was not always the case. The Magnavox Odyssey, generally recognized as the first home video game system, came out in 1972, while the first console to use cartridges, the Fairchild Channel F, did not come out until 1976. The Odyssey did allow one to put in jumper cards, which altered the contacts on the circuit board to create different variations of the basic Pong-esque game you could play, but that was the extent to which the player could alter the game.

(Side note: The Odyssey’s development actually predates Pong, but Pong pretty much beat it to market. Developers of both have been known to get grumpy if you ask about how exactly that went down [1].)

This style of system was typical of the period – Atari’s Home Pong, in 1975, was much the same [2], and a whopping 75 companies said they would release a home system that played “tennis” in 1976. These systems were quite successful – the Odyssey sold 100,000 copies, Home Pong sold 150,000 in its first year [3], and Coleco’s Telestar sold more than $100 million worth of units [4]. Even Nintendo sold single-game systems, the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15, both released in 1977 [5].

If single-game systems were doing so well, why did Fairchild decide to do something else? A large part of it was advancing technology. Most, if not all, of the single-game systems were a single (complicated) circuit. The release of Intel’s 4004 microprocessor in 1971 (and its successors, the 8008 in 1972 and 8080 in 1974) allowed games to be done with software rather than hardware. Therefore, changing games only required changing the memory, not the entire circuit. In 1974, Wallace Kirschner of Alpex realized that there was a potential market for a system with software games, and started development. But Alpex knew that they were not big enough to be able to finance such a game on their own, and in 1975 approached semiconductor manufacturers. Fairchild thought it was interesting, and decided to help. Jerry Lawson, an engineer at Fairchild, joined up with Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel at Alpex to build the system.

fs-feb_game1 Figure 1: The contacts on the outside of a Fairchild Channel F game cartridge.

However, as they put it together, they realized that changing the memory out was a delicate operation that the typical consumer would not be comfortable doing. In order to make something that would be accessible to the layperson, they brought on an industrial designer, Nick Talesforce. He realized that there already was something similar in the homes of many consumers – 8-track tapes, the predecessor to cassettes. He mimicked their approximate size for the memory cartridges, but added ridges to make it easier to add and take out – a convention that has been followed by pretty much all cartridge systems that have come and gone.[6]

fs-feb_game2Figure 2: The Fairchild Channel F game console with a game cartridge.

While the Channel F made quite the splash when it was released in 1976, it ultimately did not do very well, selling 350,000 units in three years. Atari, which released its own cartridge-based system, the Atari 2600 (a.k.a. the Video Computer System), in 1977, sold millions in the same time period.6 The difference? Games. Atari was already very established in the arcade business, and formed an entire division to provide new games to its console on an ongoing basis. Compared to Fairchild, which had made the system as a way of selling microprocessors, Atari knew that it could make more money off of new games for the system, giving them an incentive to make games that people would want to buy. And that’s a lesson that has proved to be true over the decades since those early days of video gaming. People follow the consoles for fun games, not the biggest technical innovations.

[1] www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/404
[2] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 87
[3] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 94
[4] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 96
[5] iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/clubn/game-and-watch-ball-reward/0/0
[6] www.fastcompany.com/3040889/the-untold-story-of-the-invention-of-the-game-cartridge
[7] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 180

Horoscopes by Drunk Editors

Aquarius (Jan. 20 – Feb. 18): You should probably re-measure that thing.

Pisces (Feb. 19 – March 20): Today is going to be the worst. Maybe you should get a new hat.

Aries (March 21 – April 19): If a Candidate comes up to you with questions, make sure that they know Olin Dining doesn’t have grapefruit spoons.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20): You know what you did, and so does the universe. You’re awesome.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20): Give up hope on that. No more partying for you.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22): Do you smell that across the hall?

Leo (July 23 – Aug. 22): Paint the town red. Crash a party.

Virgo (Aug. 23 – Sept. 22): You rule. Go look for pizza.

Libra (Sept. 23 – Oct. 22): Run! Hide!

Scorpio (Oct. 23 – Nov. 21): Don’t forget your towel.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21): Things may be unclear today. Bring an umbrella.

Capricorn (Dec. 22 – Jan. 19): Today will be almost perfect… for everyone else!