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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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. …