Teaching and Learning | Feature

Collaboration Spans Academics and IT at Olin College

Olin College of Engineering is a standout for its focus on collaborative, interdisciplinary, project-based learning. But its innovative approach is not limited to academics -- the institution's IT department has developed a similar philosophy to serve its unique student population.

When Joanne Kossuth became founding CIO for Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, one of the first instructions she was given was: "Build an infrastructure so we don't have to say no." That philosophy has resulted in the development of an IT organization that now -- 12 years after the inaugural freshmen began classes -- is more partner than technical expert to students and faculty.

"When I talk to my colleagues, I say I often have a challenge when I hire people because IT folks traditionally want to be gurus. [Here] you're not the expert," mused Kossuth, who also now holds the title of vice president of operations. "You work together. You find solutions together. That could be a little bit challenging if you're used to saying, 'Here's the answer.'"

A New Approach to Engineering Education

Olin's philosophical approach to IT has its roots in the college's unique history.

Olin was dreamed up as a new kind of undergraduate college of engineering, one with a hands-on, project-oriented instructional approach. It was initially funded by a $200 million gift from the F. W. Olin Foundation, a philanthropic organization that had already infused more than $300 million into 57 other college campuses to construct and equip new buildings. The foundation closed in the early 2000s after handing over its remaining $260 million to Olin College as an endowment.

Franklin Olin was a Cornell-educated engineer who made his first fortune building powder mills and his second fortune inventing a loading machine that could turn out shotgun shells faster than existing machines. He continued growing his business through World War I and II by becoming a major producer of ammunition. Throughout all of his business endeavors, Olin emphasized innovation and entrepreneurial effort, characteristics that live on in his namesake college. In fact, his company, Olin Corporation, which has diversified into multiple industries, still exists.

It should be no surprise then that the college puts as much emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurialism as on what might be considered more traditional areas of study for engineers. It's also no coincidence that the foundation chose a site for its new college that was within walking distance of Babson College, an institution known for delivering an innovative education in entrepreneurship. Babson too was a recipient of the foundation's largesse. (Along with liberal arts-focused Wellesley College, just two miles west, the three schools offer cross-registration to students.)

More Engaged Students

From its beginnings Olin was intended to embrace creativity and become a model of what engineering education should look like for the 21st century.

Tony Wagner, who featured Olin extensively in his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, pointed to the school's admissions process as an example of its innovative approach: "Once you make the first cut for admissions, you're required to attend one of their candidates weekends." In these events, which are held through the winter, students are given a problem to solve in a team of other candidates whom they've never met. "You're observed in the process of collaborating and problem-solving by faculty who are blind to your transcripts, test scores and the like. They have not seen your admissions portfolio. The final decision on admissions is made on the basis of what they've observed, which I find to be extraordinary."

When Wagner talked to Olin President Richard Miller about this admissions practice, Miller told him, "At too many schools of engineering you find these kids who are absolutely brilliant, but when they talk to you, they're always looking at their feet or mumbling or cannot work collaboratively. They have a certain kind of intelligence, but they're not able to engage; they're not able to problem-solve."

After spending multiple days talking with students in the dining hall, sitting in on classes and participating in special events on campus, Wagner concluded, "Olin College kids are very different. They're far more able to be engaged, interested and interesting. I think a high percentage have a real desire to be more entrepreneurial."

Almost all of Olin's courses are inter-disciplinary, project-based and team-based. Students spend much of their time in hands-on learning experiences. Early on, for example, students work in teams to design a moving object based on something observed in nature, like a toy, said Wagner. "Here's the kicker. The panel of judges for your final project is a class of fourth graders. They're the ultimate customers." In their final year, students are expected to participate in SCOPE, the Senior Capstone Program in Engineering, where they work in multi-disciplinary teams to provide innovative solutions to a company's real-world problems. (There's also a requirement that they do a project in fine or liberal arts, he Wagner added.)

The results are startling. The overall national completion rate for engineering majors who obtain a degree in six years is about 60 percent. At Olin it has been as high as 91 percent. And by the way, half of Olin's students are women. (The national average is between 18 and 20 percent.)

Granted, there may be some advantage in size. Olin's current enrollment is a modest 346. But innovative companies that hire engineering students agree that the 12-year experiment is a success. In his book Wagner quoted Lynn Andrea Stein, a professor of computer science and engineering: "It may be hard for the first Olin graduate to get in the door and past HR. But it's never hard for the second student. Microsoft hired three of our first-year graduates; the next year, they hired seven; and the year after, it was 10."

Last year, Wagner claimed, Microsoft interviewed over half of the graduating class. Once hired, students behave, Wagner wrote, "as if they've been in the field for three to five years."

Turning Problem-Solving into Learning

One of the courses students take is "User-Oriented Collaborative Design," where they learn how to approach a product's design through a "deep understanding" of the people it's meant to serve. To gain that perspective, they follow people around to see what they do, how they do it and how it might be improved. In one case a student team tracked bicycle messengers who tended to work with one earbud in to listen to their dispatcher and the other earbud in to listen to music. Switching back and forth broke their concentration and tended to lead to accidents.

The team's prototype design was simple: a Staples "Easy Button" worn on the rider's vest. Recalled Kossuth, "You push the button and it switches from one to the other and you don't have to lose your concentration in terms of how you're manipulating the bike."

The IT staff has taken a lesson from that approach to lure students into working for IT. For a while, said Kossuth, the department was having trouble hiring students "because it wasn't sexy and intriguing enough for them. Why would they want to do that when they could do something more fun?" So she challenged her team "to look at hiring people and not just saying, 'OK, you're going to repair hardware until you're purple,' but to say, 'Here are some of the other issues we have that are challenging for us. How would you help us solve them?'"

The result: "This year we seem to have an abundance of people who are interested in helping us. I think [problem-solving is] a big part of the culture. The more we can incorporate it, the better off we are."

Continuous Innovation Mode

Kossuth's IT organization has learned to put itself into continuous innovation mode just like the population it's serving.

Traditionally, IT has a reputation "for being the 'No' guys," said Kossuth. "Some of that is because there are legitimate concerns around safety, security, privacy. It's also due to the fact that for a number of years IT was really in a centralized position of control. It's often hard to give that up."

People in IT have learned to think of themselves as solution providers, she noted. "We get paid to find ways to make things happen. It's difficult to have people understand that listening to what the users need is a part of that solution. And what they want is to feel vetted; they want to feel participatory and have buy-in, and they don't want IT to walk in and say, 'Here is how you should do it.'"

For example, while Olin has Blackboard as its learning management system, faculty aren't really expected to use it much at all. "It's utilized a lot with visitors and adjuncts and folks like that that are used to it," said Kossuth. At one point, IT was having a conversation with its "academic colleagues" about the possibility of adopting a social media platform for an LMS-like purpose, she recalled. But the consensus was that IT shouldn't spend its time trying to figure out an appropriate platform, "because, in fact, the faculty respond to what the students bring in every semester. These things evolve quickly, and the faculty want to adapt to what the students are using."

When students and alumni decided the college needed a portal, they called on IT to work with them, which IT did -- "for a while." Then, recalled Kossuth, IT stepped away, handed them some parameters for the work to be done, paid for a cloud-based development environment and told them that if the results ended up being something IT could deploy, then IT would take over support of the portal.

"Well, it took a number of years, but eventually, they came up with something. They realized how challenging some things could be," said Kossuth. Both sides altered "expectations and specifications" and ultimately a portal was developed that has since been transitioned over to IT.

Controls Have Their Place

None of this means IT simply rolls over when a student beckons. In cases where students want to set up their own components, such as a server, IT works with them. "We control the parsing out of IP addresses," Kossuth explained. And one of the rules for setting up the server is that it has to be checked out by the college's network team to make sure it's properly secured. "When it takes students up to six months sometimes to figure out how to harden it correctly, they learn a lot from that process about how easy things are and aren't. They learn a lot about due diligence and what's necessary."

If students want to experiment with an application, such as a new chat client, Olin will help them figure out where it can safely be installed, such as in the cloud. To support and fund those efforts, students can apply for academic innovation grants from the academic affairs office. But to get something adopted institution-wide, said Kossuth, just like in the real world, "ultimately you have to come back with a proposal and help convince people that this is where we should spend their scarce enterprise resources."

Kossuth said auditors ask her all the time, "Don't you worry about the internal threat?" Her response: Yes. But the college has a process in place for dealing with aberrant behavior and an honor code that backs a hard line. For instance, students aren't allowed to deploy their own wireless access points. "The first time we'll call the student in and explain to them, 'OK, now the guys in robotics cannot do what they need to do; these people can't do what they need to do because you're mucking up the spectrum by having your points.'" Because the students as a whole are "fairly technical," they understand that they're causing an impact on others that's negative. Often, that's enough to fix the problem.

For the "second conversation," however, IT will take the case to the honor board. Explained Kossuth, "When you're in higher ed, you know they're here to learn, and you try to help them learn. When you've given them the opportunity to learn and it's not working, there needs to be some other consequences."

Student Involvement Across the Board

Students participate up and down in the college. There's a student IT working group that meets on a regular basis. A sustainability steering committee has students on it. Students serve on the emergency planning committee, the dining advisory board and practically any other group that meets and makes decisions on campus. Their role, said Kossuth, is to "get the word back to the rest of their colleagues, the students."

"A lot of schools talk about how they're so student-centric," Kossuth noted. "When you scratch beneath the surface, they're not necessarily all that different. At Olin it's not just the approach that gets taken in the classroom, but that our students serve on all kinds of committees, up to the board level. Our students are really partners in building the education at Olin."

Trial by Fire

Traditional engineering schools are often characterized by an intense competitive atmosphere, noted Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. "I interviewed kids who were at MIT and they said in the first year it felt like it was all about competition -- very competitive, cutthroat, and you really felt you couldn't make a mistake," he pointed out. At Olin, in contrast, "One woman said to me, we don't talk much about grades here. But we talk a lot about iteration, the idea of reflecting on what worked and didn't work in a project or course and applying it to your next effort. That quote has always stayed with me."

Olin trades that trial by fire for something more literal: The school has gained infamy for its Fire Arts Club, a student group that performs art with fire. Said Joanne Kossuth, the school's founding CIO and VP of operations, "Most people look at that and say, 'That's really dangerous and crazy.' But when you look at the process they went through and what they have for safety manuals, it's easy to see they take safety really seriously."

No doubt, plenty of students have gotten burned as they've figured out the rules and procedures for twirling fire for fun. The same may be said for Olin's overall grand experiment of which IT is a part of the fabric. Much of what's tried may not work in its original manifestation -- so the college backs up and takes a new direction. "It's a risk management question to us," said Kossuth. "We're all going to learn something and see what we can do."

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