Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

The College That Doesn't Exist ... Yet: The F.W. Olin College Has Taken a Unique Approach to the Planning, Building and Marketing of the Nation's First New Independent, Four-Year Engineering School in 40 Years. Here's an Inside Look at Their Story. (Cover Story)

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

The College That Doesn't Exist ... Yet: The F.W. Olin College Has Taken a Unique Approach to the Planning, Building and Marketing of the Nation's First New Independent, Four-Year Engineering School in 40 Years. Here's an Inside Look at Their Story. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

At first blush, the scenario seems straight out of the pages of a science fiction film script. Tenured staff at prestigious universities quit their jobs to join top-ranked high school graduates who've turned down admission to some of those same schools. Their mission: to create a revolutionary undergraduate curriculum for an engineering school that doesn't exist.

Far-fetched as this may sound, it's actually happening in Needham, Mass., where two months ago, on August 23, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering opened its not yet completed doors to welcome 30 high school graduates. They'll spend the academic year working with faculty to develop a curriculum--and school culture--and will be part of the first freshman class, which arrives in fall 2002.

The students, called Olin Partners, are receiving five-year, $170,000 scholarships. Funding comes from the F.W. Olin Foundation, established in 1938 by Franklin W. Olin, a self-taught engineer and entrepreneur who played major league baseball to pay for his education.

An independent college, Olin is partnering with nearby Babson College, renowned for its business entrepreneurship program, to share academic resources, facilities and services. Four buildings housing classrooms, laboratories, a student center, administration facilities and a residence hall are still under construction.

Although other efforts are under way nationwide to reform engineering education, the creation of Olin College, in particular, has attracted the attention of the engineering community.

"They are going to be trailblazers in this area. There's no question about that," says Louis Martin-Vega, acting assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation. The NSF has been urging radical changes in engineering education since the late 1980s, and providing funding to some of the 300 U.S. colleges offering engineering courses.

"Because Olin is designing and developing what they're doing from ground level with these philosophies in mind, we're very interested in this experiment," Martin-Vega adds. "We hope and we think it will be a very significant stimulus to other schools."

But how do you create a school from scratch? Here's a look behind the scenes at the design, planning and marketing of Olin, the country's first new four-year engineering college in some 40 years.

The Vision

In the early 1990s, the Olin Foundation decided to shift its focus from funding building grants worth more than $300 million to 57 colleges and universities to founding a college.

Foundation President Lawrence W. Milas conceived the idea. Rising construction costs led Milas to examine the possibility of developing a program enabling the foundation to go out of existence. Establishing an engineering college seemed a promising way to "be sure the foundation's endowment would always be committed to higher education," Milas says. The other trustees agreed.

"Obviously, there were concerns, such as where, how much, and is there a need for a new engineering college in America," adds Milas. "But after we started to do some research, we decided there really was an opportunity to do something different. The NSF had been spending millions of dollars trying to reform engineering education but found it was difficult to get engineering schools, and faculty in particular, to change what they were doing. The NSF wanted to make the work more hands on, more integrated and interdisciplinary, have students work in teams as they do in industry, to promote better communication skills and to encourage a better understanding of the global economy.

"We looked at the possibility of going to a university that didn't have an engineering school and letting them do it," Milas says. "That would've been the easiest way, but in the future we couldn't be sure what priorities engineering would have."

A Babson graduate, Milas began making inquiries about buying some of the school's excess land. …

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