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Olin: A Different Kind of College

Early in 2009 I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Boston College Irish College study trip that was funded by the US State Department. A group of people from the Higher Education sector in Ireland visited various colleges and universities in the Boston area. But the one that made the biggest impression on me, in terms of what a college could be if one threw out the aeons old rule book, was little Olin College of engineering.

As it says on their website: “Olin College prepares students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions, and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.”

Olin has a set of objectives unusual for a higher education institution 1) the consideration of human and societal needs; 2) the creative design of engineering systems; and 3) the creation of value through entrepreneurial effort and philanthropy. The College is also dedicated to the discovery and development of the most effective educational approaches and aspires to serve as a model for others. So the typical university idea, going back to Bologna and the University of Paris, to the traditional models of Cambridge and Oxford, have been thrown out. Innovation is the key.

Universities are great but, and it is a big but, they tend to get into traditions and process. And these can be the enemies of innovation over the centuries. Great corporate innovators often fall by the wayside because of ‘not invented here’ syndrome, the trap of success, the lead weight of history.

Starting in the late 1980’s, the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and engineering community at-large started calling for reform in engineering education. In order to serve the needs of the growing global economy, it was clear that engineers needed to have business and entrepreneurship skills, creativity and an understanding of the social, political and economic contexts of engineering.

Franklin W. Olin (1860-1951) was an engineer, entrepreneur and professional baseball player, he went on to found the company known today as the Olin Corporation, a Fortune 1000 company. In 1938, Mr. Olin transferred a large part of this personal wealth to a private philanthropic foundation.The F.W. Olin Foundation decided the best way to maximize its impact was to help create a college from scratch that can address these emerging needs. Started in 1997 Olin College of Engineering. Olin’s first faculty members joined the college by September 2000. The college officially opened in Fall 2002 to its inaugural freshman class. During the prior year, thirty student “partners” worked with Olin’s world-class faculty to create and test an innovative curriculum that infused a rigorous engineering education with business and entrepreneurship as well as the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Every admitted student receives a four-year, tuition scholarship valued at approximately $80,000. The rankings in the U.S. speak for themselves, when you think they are up against the Stanford’s and MIT’s of this world.

US News: #8 (Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs); Princeton Review: among the top 20 institutions in the nation in eleven categories, including # 2 for “students never stop studying” and # 2 for “professors get high marks.”

I love the Olin story, and it shows that even the oldest sectors can create an innovative solution to modern problems.

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