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My education at Olin College

A newly graduated physics teacher reflects on the benefits she received at a small and innovative engineering college.

I first heard about Olin College of Engineering when I read the 2007 New York Times article “Re-engineering Engineering.” At the time, I was a junior in high school and just beginning to think about where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study. I didn’t really know what engineering was, but I loved physics, so it seemed like a reasonable choice.

The New York Times article instantly piqued my interest and put Olin at the top of my list of desirable schools. Although I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer, and Olin only offers engineering degrees, I was drawn to Olin’s mission and school culture and, after more research and exploration, I knew it was the place I wanted to be.

Part of the Olin College campus. CREDIT: Michael Maloney

Part of the Olin College campus. CREDIT: Michael Maloney

Olin is a small undergraduate engineering school located in Needham, Massachusetts (about 15 miles outside of Boston). The school enrolls only about 350 students, and it graduated its first class in 2006. Olin is dedicated to reinventing engineering education—that is, to training more well-rounded engineers and directly addressing the problems of high dropout rates and a lack of diversity in the engineering workforce. Olin aims to graduate engineers who are innovative and entrepreneurial, while also provoking and supporting other engineering schools to make changes towards the same goals.

Olin’s curriculum

As a student at Olin, I was constantly engaged in open-ended projects through which I learned concepts, practices, and mindsets central to being an engineer. I did not have to wait through years of math and science courses before being allowed to tackle actual engineering problems. All students at Olin begin engineering projects on our first day of classes.

We learn engineering by doing it: by trying something, often failing, reflecting on what we did, learning to ask for help when we need it and reiterating until we’re successful. The process is messy, but the end result is learning that is far more powerful and long-lasting than anything we could have gotten from sitting in a lecture hall.

In addition to assigning projects, Olin’s curriculum focuses on design-based learning and interdisciplinary work. Through design-based learning students do not solve pre-defined problems, but instead we find and define for ourselves what problems are worth solving. In user-oriented design courses at Olin, we study the people who will ultimately be using our products. We get to know their needs and values and we find ways to engineer things that will improve their lives.

For example, in one class project, my team studied people who work with blind children. By the end of the project, we had designed a tool to help public school teachers who have blind children in their classes. Olin’s focus on user-centered design means that as students, we get to tackle problems that are meaningful to us and will make a difference in the world. When I decided to go to Olin I didn’t know that engineering could focus on helping people, but that turned out to be my favorite thing about it.

In high school I had always loved physics, and that love continued at Olin. When I look at everyday phenomena, I think about the physics that underlies what I see happening and I enjoy figuring out how things work just for the sake of knowing. At Olin I discovered that I love both physics and engineering, so I decided to design my own major: engineering with a concentration in physics. For me, this meant fulfilling Olin’s general engineering requirements and also taking most of the physics classes for a typical physics major.

Many students at Olin design their own majors, and like others, I made it work through a combination of Olin classes, independent studies, and cross-registering at Olin’s reciprocal schools: Wellesley College, Brandeis University, and Babson College. Designing my own major required me to delineate exactly what I wanted to get out of my college education, and it taught me to take initiative in order to reach those goals.

Student life at Olin

Besides its curriculum, what makes Olin special is the school's culture and community. Because Olin is so small, we are a very tight-knit community. Students work together all the time—not just on group projects, but also in clubs and on voluntary side projects. We know each other well and we support each other—there’s always someone to turn to for help when you need it, and often someone offering help before you’ve even asked. We also get to know the faculty well and work closely with them: in classes, on research projects, and in extracurricular activities.

The author (center) just before her graduation from Olin College in 2013. CREDIT: Michael Maloney

The author (center) just before her graduation from Olin College in 2013. CREDIT: Michael Maloney

Although all Olin students are there to study engineering, we also have a wide range of other interests, and Olin does a lot to support us in pursuing them. In addition to clubs, which are easy to form around any interest, we also have “co-curriculars” and “passionate pursuits.”

Co-curriculars are activities organized by faculty members around their areas of interest. They cover a huge range of activities, such as training for a marathon, beekeeping, composting, or going to see plays in Boston. Passionate pursuits are organized by students around topics we want to learn. Faculty members advise us (usually playing a very minimal role) and the school provides both funding and academic credit for us to learn about the topic. While at Olin, I did passionate pursuits in cooking and cake decorating; my friends pursued such activities as aerial silks, making chainmail armor, and scuba diving.

Olin and education

The extracurricular interest I was most devoted to during my time at Olin was education, which I pursued in a variety of ways. I did education research, was a course assistant for first-year classes at Olin, and ran engineering outreach activities for local students from pre-K through 12th grade. My interest in education and teaching began before college, but it significantly intensified at Olin.

Because Olin was founded with the purpose of reinventing engineering education, it is filled with opportunities to learn about a wide variety of topics in education. Many Olin professors do education research, and I regularly had discussions with them about what they were studying, which taught me about topics such as self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation.

Olin professors also care deeply about making their courses—and Olin’s curriculum as a whole—the best it can be. Our courses are constantly changing, and it is commonplace for students to have conversations with professors about what they are doing in their courses and why. I decided during my sophomore year at Olin that I was going to be a high school physics teacher, so for me these conversations and my experiences in classes were particularly meaningful, as they shaped my vision of the kind of teacher I would become.

Olin immersed me in a method of education radically different than any I’d previously experienced. It taught me the value of student autonomy and authentic, real-world experiences. I learned how to be self-directed and developed a commitment to teaching my students not just content, but also skills, behaviors, and attitudes that will help them become lifelong learners. I also learned how important collaboration is and how to collaborate effectively, both as a student and as a teacher.

Finally, I saw from my professors and from my own experiences teaching how enormously complex and challenging good teaching is and I decided that the best way to prepare myself to become a great teacher was to pursue a master’s degree in education and spend a full year student teaching. I graduated from Olin in May 2013 and have spent the past year in Stanford University’s teacher education program. Olin prepared me exceptionally for both my graduate coursework and my student teaching and it continues to be the inspiration for my goals as a teacher.

Rebecca Schutzengel graduated from Stanford's teacher education program in June 2014. Next year she will be teaching physics and robotics at Castro Valley High School in California. In her spare time she likes to bake cookies, brownies, and cakes.

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