Olin College gets it right.
engineering starts with people — understanding who we’re designing for, what they value, and where there are areas of opportunity — and ends with people
Olin College was founded because we believe there is a problem with undergraduate engineering education. The traditional curriculum is too narrow; it teaches students how to solve problems, but not how to find the right problems to solve, or how to get their solutions out of the lab and into the world.
At most schools, students spend the first semesters — sometimes years — taking prerequisites in math and science before they do any engineering. These programs discourage many of the students who are most interested in engineering.
At Olin, students start engineering right away, with three classes in the first semester that provide hands-on experiences in several areas of engineering. And throughout the curriculum, students stay engaged by working on projects connected to real-world challenges. Students begin to explore the arts, humanities, social sciences and entrepreneurship early on, and they are able to directly integrate and apply this learning in all areas of the curriculum.
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We are trying something really new this term. Not something that we all agreed on. But something we felt worth trying, with Tristan Miller being the chief experimenter supported by Maja.
In all the teaching I have been involved in, specially software teaching, we first qualify students to ensure that they have the background necessary to follow the course. We decide and announce what language they would be learning and what kind of exercises and projects they need to do and what they want to focus on and of course we run it strictly according to plan.
Selection > We did not do that
We pretty much let everyone who wanted to join the module join. Some of them knew programing and some have never programed.
Programing Language > We did not chose that
While we started the module with processing, students were allowed to chose languages of their choice. We see them moving onto different languages (not all of which we know).
Exercises & Structured Projects > We have none
Students choose their own.
Marking >Thank God, we don’t do that
Thanks to the structure of the adventure space we do not carry that burden.
So as you can can see Tristan is running this module in a very very weird way. But is it working ? By the looks of it – very much so.35 students are fully engrossed learning what they wish to learn.
We are breaking new grounds here.
Deciding what too offer this term through our digital literacy program was a bit chaotic. I had planed a clever strategy. Since I knew that kids were bored with education, why not introduce them to fun stuff first and them trick them into learning math and science ?
After all we are part of a school and funded by tax payers. I was not sure if we can sustain a program that is based on the schools motto of “Follow Your Own Adventure”. So I schemed. A carefully planned strategy to introduce math and science thorough programing was presented to our team.
But every member of the team much to their credit had ideas of their own.Those who cook up devious schemes need to cooperate else they get caught out. It was not going to work. So we decided not to kid the kids – mainly because we could not agree on how to.
So we decide that we will not. The kids won. We will not be kidding them. We will let them follow their own adventure. So the kids choose. They choose the programing language the projects that they wish to do and the level of skills that they wish to develop.
No more hidden agendas.
This explains the nature of the path well. Most people prefer the sensible path shown first, but then when they get there they will realize that they are amongst a crowd that has slogged their way there. The second path is full of perils. Many will give up. But every obstacle is a learning opportunity, even if they don’t get up there, they have learned more than peddling along a well paved path.
What does it mean for Innovation Space
- Not everyone will create a successful outcome; nevertheless they will more than the cyclist
- It takes an unusual set of skills to get there (many have to be learnt on encounter along the way)
- Mentoring is more than blowing the whistle at the start and being there at the end to judge if the students have arrived and in what order
- Normal students will choose the first path, the extraordinary will choose the latter
- Initially, many students join Innovation Space seduced by the end destination and will give up when they realize what it is like to be in the second route
- All kinds of planning to get there becomes useless, continuous re-planning is needed
- It is easy to judge who will get to the top in the first route, difficult to guess that for the latter
- Throughout the journey those in the second route will mostly see difficulties and failures. Those who succeed are those who do not give up.
- Those who are team players will do better in the second path and lone nerds will do well in the first
- When they get to the top on the second route – few will accept that they have got there (because they did not use that bicycle)
Such is the nature of innovation.
I had the pleasure of attending Fablab Adelaide’s 1st birthday party this weekend. In addition to meeting more cool people, I was deeply inspired by their success. Putting together, growing and managing something like FabLab is no mean task. It is fuelled primarily by the interest and commitment of the community that supports it. Its members ranging from ages 66 to 16 come from all walks of life, bringing with them a rich set of experience, skills and interest to create the kind of value that is barely noticed. Luckily for them, they have the Lord Mayor of Adelaide Stephen Yarwood as one of their believers. He was there. Like many, he is waiting for his retirement to spend more time with the hacker community which he recognizes as essential in developing Adelaide as cool tech city.
Dr. Zoz Brooks delivered an inspiring speech, pointing out the value that entities such as FabLabs bring to the city. He also pointed out that they form the backbone of creative economies and deliver per $, more value than most universities and research institutes can dream of. The city of Adelaide is fortunate to have one, thanks to the untiring efforts and remarkable leadership of Karen Marsh.
Innovation Space is grappling with the problem of selection. We have more students for our Digital Literacy Program than we can support, creating a problem of selection – that we are not sure how to re-solve.
We certainly cannot go by grades. Good exam takers are often not great innovators as their minds can race along only on pre made tracks. Those who can lay their own tracks like tanks, seem to be better able at entering new territories and navigating the rough grounds that confront those who leave the well paved roads.
Innovation is the fortuitous combination of unusual abilities and unusual opportunities. Every student is different with different interests and different abilities. To subject them to the same standardized test – is the choice of governments and not ours. It is known, that those outside the curve are better able to innovate and those within it are less able to. So we need to rely on skills and interests that are very different from what standardized tests aim to measure.
In the few terms we have run Innovation Space, those who fair well (produce results) seem to be those who have grit. Those who have talent are plentiful and those who are aware of it seem to be least effective in making use of it, while those who persevere learn how to learn and do stuff that others have not.