Monday, December 11, 2006

The Olin Curriculum: Thinking Towards The Future

The Olin Curriculum: Thinking Towards The Future is a paper written in Feb. of last year by a lot of professors and administrators here about - well, the Olin curriculum. It covers briefly where it's come from and where it might be going. Since it is an IEEE publication, it focuses on the ECE curriculum on the last page, but the rest is general Olin and should be of interest to all majors.

It's amusing to see some hints of the future - for instance, the conclusion suggests the possibility of expansion into the biology realm - and some artifacts from the past, such as sophomore integrated course blocks. It is amazing how much a school can change in less than 2 years.

Another section outlines Olin's curricular objectives and goals. Here's my take on how well we're accomplishing them (Miks, I'm procrastinating on my IS deliverable here and still owe you a good post). The standard disclaimer applies: this is in no way representative of anything Olin-official, and is based entirely off my own biased views and experiences.

  1. The curriculum should motivate students and help them to cultivate a lifelong love of learning. I think that we generally attempt to provide this in the execution of classes, but the structure within which those classes are placed (that is, the overarching curriculum) could be better designed to promote lifelong learning and love thereof. Yes, it's very possible for students to pursue their passions if they push hard enough, but that's true of any place; with its many independent studies, cocurriculars, and passionate pursuits, Olin is a much easier place to do this than most. But we can do better. In particular, it is difficult to cultivate a lifelong love of learning when you're trying to overload knowledge into your brain at such high velocity that it is no longer enjoyable.
  2. The curriculum should include design throughout, from the day students arrive on campus to the day they graduate. Day students arrive on campus: Candidates' Weekend, check. Day they graduate: SCOPE projects, check. Well, close enough. Olin has an amazing design component for an engineering school. Olin has an amazing design component for any school, design schools included. I'm not talking about the studio art skills (and if you say we don't have any you haven't taken Prof. Donis-Keller's classes), but the teaching of what it means to think like a designer. I do think that our design foundations, namely Design Nature and UOCD, could use revision; they're arriving at the point where I'm afraid that if we run them the same way another year or two, they're going to become habits.
  3. The culmination of the curriculum should be a senior capstone that is authentic, ambitious, and representative of professional practice. SCOPE, check. Ambitious, yes. Authentic and representative of professional practice? Closer than pretty much anything other than a co-op could be. We've got our own budget, office space, minimal guidance, and a problem. However, we're still very much "not real-world workers" in that we've still got classes and finals and can't work on the project anywhere near full-time.
  4. Students should gain experience working as an individual, as a member of a team, and as a leader of a team. Everyone will get lots of experience with the first two, although individual work is less often project-based, which I can see leading to problems later in life when I have to build things all by myself. I've been lucky and gotten a chance to do this, but not everyone gets to have experience working as a leader of a team. This is compounded by the twin facts that (1) teams usually want to do well and (2) the first time someone leads something they'll be quite uncomfortable and mess up a lot. I'm not sure how to get over this. Perhaps learning leadership should be built more explicitly into the curriculum, and people who normally don't take leadership roles should be given more low-committment, short-term, low-stakes chances to try it out and encouraged to do so.
  5. Students should learn to communicate logically and persuasively in spoken, written, numerical, and visual forms. Some Olin students are very good at this, some are not. I would love to see a higher standard required of all Olin students in this regard, but recognize there probably isn't time to cram more of this into our already packed learning schedules.
  6. The curriculum should include space for a true international/intercultural immersion experience. Study Away, check. I would love to travel with a professor or two, or a group of Olin students on a semi-academic excursion. (By the way, I'll be travelling a lot for the year after graduation; let me know if you'd like to join me in any leg of the journey. More details to come.)
  7. The goal is to graduate self-sufficient, motivated individuals able to articulate and activate a vision and bring it to fruition. An education that prepares students only to turn problem statements into proposed solutions is inadequate; education must also prepare students to recognize problems and to convince others to adopt solutions.
It's a little soon to tell for the last one, but we can hope. I think we're very good at spotting opportunities, but less so at filtering out the good ones, which leads to the perpetual Olin Overload. (oLoad?) To be fair, some students are very good at managing oLoad; many more of us are not. I don't know that there is a better way to learn what you can't handle than by trying to handle it and failing, though. As Chandra pointed out, at some point we're going to have to learn how to be in charge of what we do with our own lives, and the earlier you mess up and learn that, the better; the process takes a lifetime.


Mikell said...

Ha! I will now make life more difficult by you by leaving ANOTHER lengthy comment!

So, framing your thoughts in the context of the "real world" and what I've seen so far:

The Bluefin guys love Olin. My CEO, other officers, department managers, and project managers have all said, quote, "We have to get more of you guys." (Props to Joe Roskowski for putting the plural in "guys") Among the things they have pointed out that make us so different:

1) A willingness to experiment. From my perspective, I feel like I don't know nearly enough, and so I don't want to embarass myself/waste someone else's time by asking them to hand-hold me through a problem I'm trying to debug. I see this as being insecure. From my managers' perspectives, they see someone who just goes off and tries lots of "I wonder if..." situations until they figure it out. They're thrilled. I saved two $75k INSs this way and they all told me how amazed they were that I had thought to open up two (mildly classified, expensively warrantied) black boxes, swap out electronics I'd never seen before, and figure out what was going on. This seems obvious to me, after everything we did in projects at Olin, but they didn't expect me to even think about it. So hands-on is good, but so is letting us totally fuck up from time to time and have to experiment our way out of it. (In this respect, I think something that really adds to this is the 24-hour lab access. If we can go in and try things on our own, we're more likely to be creative about it and not worry that we're not following the lab instructions to the letter)

2) A willingness to jump and stick to our guns. I get pushed a lot, when I suggest a problem with something in one of our systems, "Ar you sure? Are you 100% sure?" And most of the time, I can say, "Yes." Then they try to call my bluff by proving me wrong. And so far, they haven't. And they're always surprised. Maybe we're a little arrogant ;) but I think Olin people, in general, seem to have a good grip on what they do and don't know and the confidence to stand up for what they do. How to foster this? As painful as design reviews could be (particularly for SCOPE), the chance to have someone "abusing" you in front of an audience makes it hard for you to bullshit if there are lots of people with lots more knowledge who are just waiting to call you on it.

3) An ability to make decisions. You know how we get really frustrated at long, ineffective meetings? You know how we invented "Thumbs up, thumbs down" to make group discussion and debate more efficient? You know how there comes a point when you just say "Fine, we're doing this" and move on with your decision? Yeah, lots of people seem to not be able to handle that. My project manager told me last week that one reason he had me on the project I'm on is that "I seem like a person who can make a decision and just go with it, rather than hemming and hawing about it for days," and he wants to "train" me into a higher position because of this skill (with fairness to other engineering programs, a junior engineer from UCSD was included in this conversation -- this guy is very good, too). Again, I think this is something the Olin culture really encourages. None of us has enough time to second-guess ourselves over and over again, nor do we have time to listen to people repeat themselves. By finding ways to manage that respectfully, we give ourselves a very good set of management *and* just plain old engineering skills.

4) The ability to communicate. Oh, this is my favorite one. I just finished a 300+ slide preliminary design review that my project has to deliver to our customers (some Navy folks) this week. It was one of those "everyone go make their slides and we'll combine them" sorts of things. So last time I made slides that someone had to deliver, I got burned when the engineer didn't look over them before hand, kept asking me "Why is this in here??" DURING the presentation to the customer, and a few X's that I asked him to change to numbers had not been changed. Really embarassing. So this time, I volunteered to be the slide Nazi and make all the slides look similar, fix grammar and spelling, and do the last check on "is everything actually updated." Besides being grateful for the help, my project manager sat in the conference room with me on Friday morning, powerpoint projected onto the wall, as we went through every single slide fixing layout, spelling, wording, font size, font face, diagrams that sucked, etc. And he would start telling me to do something -- i.e., "move this text box over a few pixels so it looks more even" -- but I was usually way ahead of him. And this surprised him to no end. Afterward, he gave me a lecture about how an engineer's job is only "half technical", and he tries to teach people (he's a former MIT prof) that the other half is the ability to communicate effectively, but that very few engineers he's ever seen are able to do well at this. "Your slide geekiness will serve you well," he said. So mad props to Expo, to in-class presentations, to SCOPE design reviews, and absolutely everything that makes us get off our butts, make an aesthetically unoffensive presentation, and talk to a group of people we may or may not know.

Anyway, those are just a few of the things I've observed so far. This was very long. I'm going to finish eating breakfast and head to work now ;) Have a lovely week.

L33tminion said...

My comments on some of those points:

The curriculum should... cultivate a lifelong love of learning.

My work on the grading issue has a lot to do with this. That's why I think it's so important.

The curriculum should include design throughout

I also love Olin's design curriculum. I think Design Nature is one of the best classes at Olin.

Students should gain experience working... as a member of a team, and as a leader of a team.

I wish there was more explicit instruction in team-building / teamwork, and I've heard other students echo this sentiment. It seems we're just supposed to figure out things on our own, and that's not ideal for a lot of people (even some Olin students).

Students should learn to communicate logically and persuasively

I agree that there could be more explicit instruction on this, but there are few classes that don't work on it.

The curriculum should include space for a true international/intercultural immersion experience.

Do you think Study Away should be required? I thought that was an interesting idea.

Mel said...

Thanks for the broader perspective. I'd add a fourth point that makes some parts of the first three a little paradoxical - A willingness to learn from others. We're direct, we make decisions, and we stick to our guns, but we also admit that we don't know everything, that engineering is not the only thing in the world, and that the other people and disciplines on this planet have a lot to teach us (thank you Ben Linder). We're not "inherently better" than everyone else by virtue of being techies. When you see others as equals and potential teachers, they're much more likely to like you and teach you.

The Olin student: a walking contradiction.

Mel said...

Sam, I'm glad you're working on the grading issue. It certainly needs as much attention as it can get at this point - there's a lot of information to be found and gone through.

I think it's important to remember that we're designing a school for all the students at Olin, and that a broad range of styles and preferences needs to be accomodated (to a certain degree). One size doesn't fit all. With that in mind...

I wish there was more explicit instruction in team-building / teamwork

As a credit-bearing option, this would be great! (It also begs the question of what we wouldn't do if we had a course offering in this - we do have finite faculty resources). Actually, this has already been done. Liana Austin, Eric Munsing, Tim Smith, Chris Carrick, and myself did an independent study on team dynamics last year to fill exactly that gap in our educations, and it worked really well. Part of the reason it was so successful was its small size and the fact that we all knew each other to some degree, so we could personalize everything into context right off (which would not happen in a class). We should advertise that we did that and that it went well - perhaps other people can do it too, at least as an interim (if not a permanent) solution.

Education about teamwork is also one of those things that's terribly corny and awful until you decide you want to learn it yourself - think of how much we mocked drug awareness programs in middle school. I'm afraid that if we force people through it, they'll end up even more resistant to it than they would otherwise. One could say the same for many important issues (such as making good presentations, minorities in engineering, etc) - is it more important that everyone get exposed to something (even if they hate it) or that those that get into it love it (even if they are few)?

Students should learn to communicate logically and persuasively

I agree that there could be more explicit instruction on this, but there are few classes that don't work on it.

That's exactly the other side of the tradeoff I was talking about in the last paragraph. :)

Do you think Study Away should be required? I thought that was an interesting idea.

Required? No. Encouraged and made easier? Yes. How? I'm not sure - I don't know how much better we can do, really; in my opinion, they've been really good at getting everyone to realize there are tons of opportunities to go Away so far, and the folks that have come back from Away are continuously telling us how valuable an experience it is.

I didn't go Away, but it wasn't because I didn't know about it or thought it would not be valuable. But I don't want to generalize my experience to everyone else's. I know some folks have barriers (financial, logistical) to Away semesters that I didn't experience.