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Reinventing the Way We Teach Engineers

In creating a start-up school of engineering, Olin's Richard Miller first asked, "Can entrepreneurial thinking be taught?"
Richard Miller, President of the Olin College of Engineering

Olin College of Engineering

Richard Miller, President of the Olin College of Engineering

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Richard Miller has had one of the toughest jobs in higher education. The Olin Foundation tapped him a dozen years ago to create an engineering college on a hilltop in the Boston suburb of Needham. When Miller started, there were no buildings, no faculty, no curriculum, no students. 

The foundation's mandate: design a boldly original model for a 21st century school whose graduates would be not just accomplished engineers but world-beater entrepreneurs and leaders. 

Now the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering has a wind-swept cluster of six earth-toned buildings, 347 brainy students who pay a maximum of $38,000 tuition, an untenured faculty totaling 25 men and 13 women and a curriculum oriented toward what Miller calls "design based" learning. Miller, who has a Ph.D. in applied mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, has honed his leadership skills as Olin's chief creator and builder. Thfollowing is an edited version of an interview with Miller conducted by Inc. contributor Joseph Rosenbloom.

Olin's mission is to produce engineering innovators, which you define as engineers embodying creativity and adaptability? Can those qualities be taught?
Can entrepreneurial thinking be taught? Can music be taught? It's all in a similar kind of domain. If I had to define what Olin does today, I would say Olin creates engineers of a special kind. We define an engineer as a person with a vision of what has never been and does whatever it takes to make it happen. The interesting thing about that definition is you could replace the word "engineer" with "entrepreneur," and I think you would get pretty close to the same point. 

You have to start with a vision. There has to be passion behind it. It's not about the money. It's about making a difference. And then there has to be a set of skills and abilities that enable you to work through adversity and to manage with ingenuity as you strive to touch people's lives and change the way people live. 

What led the Olin Foundation, which was established by munitions manufacturer Franklin W. Olin in 1938, to create yet another school of engineering in a country that already had lots of them?
Olin is a grand experiment. The foundation concluded that the entire culture of engineering education needed to be reinvented. College was costing parents too much. Students should be rewarded for their commitment to science and engineering, which are national needs in this country. The foundation's directors ended the grants program and decided to devote the rest of their resources to starting a completely new school. We had to rethink what education was about and come up with a completely new model..

Why the dissatisfaction with the old model?
It's legendary that students go into science, technology, engineering and math thinking that they want to be engineers, but they transfer out in large numbers. It's usually because they hit this brick wall, and the whole field seems so abstract and detached from reality. They come out of it with a can't-do attitude. 

Have you replaced the old model with a better one?
We have courses that are more traditional. But we don't wait until students have had two years of calculus and physics before they begin to engineer things. There isn't a semester that goes by in which the students are not exposed to, and expected to, perform with a design based approach. 
An underlying principle is that education ought not to be just about transmitting a body of knowledge to the next generation. Instead, it's about building confidence by helping students learn how to construct knowledge on their own, independently.

What do you mean by a "design-based approach"?
In design based you don't even give students the problem. They have to define what it is that's important to do before they can start doing anything. That's where creativity comes in. That's the way businesses start. Nobody tells you that what everybody needs is a fancy new cell phone. Somebody with imagination somewhere has to say, "I think this will change people's lives."

Well, how does design-based teaching works in practice?
We might ask the students to build a bird that swims fast in the water like a duck. Then we make it a little more complicated. We say: Now we're going to have an evaluation not to see which duck swims the fastest, and we're going to bring in fourth graders who will evaluate you with a clipboard. You're going to make a toy out of your duck. And the kids are going to tell you whether you win or not. Now you have to put your mind into the frame of a fourth grader and do something which you think will motivate them. That's one kind of design exercise. 

You've said that, as associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Southern California and then the engineering department head at Iowa University, you hit obstacles that frustrated a series of modest reforms that you had tried to implement. What did you learn about your leadership mettle in those jobs?
I'm an unlikely person to be a leader. I've always been a very shy person. The struggles at those universities gradually built a conviction in me– not confidence, but conviction -- that change was needed, as well as determination. That eventually gave me the ability to not even notice that I'm in front of a group.

You say you were shy, but as a young man, you played in a rock band and once you were on a stage with Janis Joplin.
That was another important ingredient for overcoming my fear of public speaking. When I was young, I played the trumpet. If I practiced a lot ahead of time, it worked out fine, and people enjoyed it. I realized that standing in front of a group is a survivable thing. I just needed to have the right song. 

What more have you learned about leadership at Olin?
I've learned that you can achieve vastly more by empowering others around you and getting them to work together on a team than you can by deciding that control is really what it's about. At Olin, we have a weekly meeting of what we call the cabinet, which has vice presidents in it. It's completely transparent. There's an agenda that's published ahead of time. We make all of our budget decisions in that group. I go around the room and force everybody to weigh in on each new budget decision that has to be made. This is trust building. The idea is: no surprises. 

And there's a set of simple core values that everybody knows are at the heart of what I think is important for the institution to embrace and that I will hold all of us accountable to live by. The core values include integrity, honesty, respect for others and openness to change.

Forty-five percent of your students are women, a much higher proportion than you would find at other top engineering schools. Do you predict that your women graduates will turn out to be leaders and entrepreneurs to the same extent as the men?
This question comes up a lot at board meetings and elsewhere. Gee, it's unusual that you have so many women here. Is this a good thing? Are the women going to be as successful as the men? So we did a little back-of-the envelope analysis of what we know about the first five graduating classes. 

Based on the few metrics that we have already, it turns out that the women are overrepresented—way overrepresented—in success and leadership. For example, Olin is one of the top producers of Fulbright award winners in the country. Something like 80 percent of our Fulbright awards have gone to women. A high proportion of our graduates who are selected to be National Science Foundation fellows are women.The women who are graduating from Olin are doing very well.

As Olin becomes more settled in its ways, how does it continue to reinvent itself and remain open to change, as its mission statement stipulates?
There is continuing innovation going on. The way we are teaching things is very different. This is innovation on a smaller scale—in a classroom, for example. 

But the boldness with which we're considering new ideas is shrinking. Once in a while, a new person coming to Olin who is fresh and has a great idea says in a faculty meeting, "Why don't we try x?" And someone says, "Oh, we tried that back in ought-three, and it didn't work. Next question." That's no different from what I saw in the major research universities that were hundreds of years old, and people just gave up. We have to do better. 

Maybe it's wiping the slate clean every ten years and totally rethinking what we do. I don't know. But if there's a school in America that has an obligation to walk the walk when it comes to bold innovation in education, it's Olin.

Last updated: Apr 10, 2011




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