College from the Ground Up ; from Bricks and Mortar to Faculty and Students, It Takes a Lot to Builda New School. First in a Series

Article excerpt

In a frosty November morning, Alexandra Dew is rummaging in her car trunk for the right brochure to persuade high school guidance counselors their seniors should apply to "a college that doesn't exist."

Her first weeks of selling the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass., have been a little tricky. Olin hasn't been built yet, has no faculty or students, and is not accredited.

"I always call weeks ahead," she says. "But sometimes I get there and say 'Hi, I'm from Olin College,' and they look at me like I have three heads."

Recognition is just one hurdle facing one of the few independent engineering colleges to be built from scratch in decades. Starting a new college, let alone one focused on engineering, is a grand vision for a market already saturated with colleges and universities. The Boston area is home to dozens of schools, including some of the biggest names in higher education, like engineering heavy-weight Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition, parents and students alike put a high priority on a brand-name degree these days, something that a school achieves only over time.

But the handful of PhDs trying to get Olin off the ground by September 2001 are confident in their product. They aim to offer students something they can't get from existing programs: An education that gets them building things the moment they walk through the door.

After pitching Olin to 30 high schools in three weeks, it's a concept Ms. Dew easily synthesizes: "We won't do much civil engineering - it's more the robots-and-gadgets side of things. And we'll have a partnership with our neighbor, Babson College, to teach entrepreneurship - so Olin grads will know how to market what they invent."

The idea for Olin grew out of the demand by business for more well-rounded engineers. It is also to a response to the science community's call for changes in the way engineering is taught.

Current approaches were largely shaped after World War II, when the country was focused on defense. The "boot-camp approach" to teaching, educators say, washes away huge numbers of students. Only 1 in 5 students who declare an engineering major get a degree in it. But when its first class graduates in 2005, Olin hopes to deliver well-prepared students into a high-tech economy where they are in demand.

"We have only one chance to get it right from the beginning," says Richard Miller, Olin's president of 11 months, an aerospace engineer by training. Though he sees a niche for what Olin is offering (see story, left), he admits that creating a school from bottom to top is a Sisyphean task akin to "building an airplane while it's flying."

To supply the kind of know-how the US needs will take a different type of education, says Lawrence Milas, chairman of the Franklin W. Olin Foundation, which regularly donates new buildings to schools, especially engineering buildings.

In 1995, the National Science Foundation and others were calling for "broad structural and cultural, rather than incremental changes" in undergraduate engineering. So Mr. Milas and the foundation decided to go outside established schools. They chose a risky, but fresh approach, earmarking $300 million-plus to build and endow a fledgling institution.

Most attention-getting of all is their offer to cover tuition and room costs for the school's expected 650 students for at least a decade.

"Sure we wondered, 'Are we crazy, does the world need another engineering college?' " Milas says.

"It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give $100 million to a small university to start an engineering school," he continues. "But gradually it became clear to us that there was a singular, once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a school without any baggage."

Engineering and entrepreneurship

What administrators hope to create in Needham is a school that integrates engineering and entrepreneurship; where teamwork on problem solving, not toiling in isolation, is typical. …