A Different Approach to Engineering Education

            Incorporating lean into the curriculum of engineering and business colleges is a good idea, but it involves more than teaching students lean principles. It should involve teaching them to think in a lean way – always striving for improvement, always seeking to focus on the customer and eliminate waste.

            That is why I was impressed by an article in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times this week about Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts.

            The college officially opened in 2002, funded by $400 million from the F. W. Olin Foundation. Tuition is free, though students do pay about $12,000 per year for room and board. Non-engineering courses are offered through arrangements with other nearby colleges.

            However, the most distinctive feature of the college, according to the article by John Schwartz, is its approach to education:


Most engineering schools stress subjects like differential calculus and physics, and their graduates tend to end up narrowly focused and likely to fit the stereotype of a socially awkward clock-puncher… Olin is stressing creativity, teamwork and entrepreneurship — and, in no small part, courage…


Its method of instruction has more in common with a liberal arts college, where the focus is on learning how to learn, than with a standard engineering curriculum…


Alison Lee, a recent graduate now in South Korea on a Fulbright scholarship, said the process of solving seemingly insurmountable problems is an Olin rite of passage, like the project that was given to her and her fellow students: build a robot that can climb a wall. When it worked, she said, “it was the moment of realization that I could do anything.” The problem-based process is good preparation for the real world, said another student, Meenakshi Vembusubramanian. “You’re not going to go into a job and get a thermodynamics problem set,” she said. “You’re going to have a problem that’s badly defined.”


Benjamin Linder, an assistant professor of design and mechanical engineering… pushes his students not to just follow instructions. “Engineering,” he says, “has traditionally been focused on doing it right, but not on what’s the right thing to do.” That means designing products that are environmentally friendly and that respond to the needs of the people using them and not just to what the purchasing department wants. He urges his students to be more than team players. The goal, Linder said with utter earnestness, was to teach fledgling engineers “how to be bold.”


There was no mention of lean in the article, and I didn’t find any lean references on the college Web site. Nonetheless, Olin strikes me as encouraging a mind-set that is thoroughly consistent with lean thinking, and I hope lean is or becomes part of its curriculum.

Also, other college engineering programs are adding lean to their offerings, and I’m sure they are producing fine engineers who are independent thinkers. But Olin does seem to have more of a focus on this goal than most other schools.

The article did sound one cautionary note:

Richard K. Miller, the president of the school, admitted he is concerned that few of the class of 2006 are going on to graduate study in engineering or jobs in the field. Some graduates have told him that they are not happy in their first jobs and feel like cogs in a machine. “I’m hoping to get the message to our kids that a little bit of patience and endurance could pay off in the end,” he said. Still, “this is one of the things that keeps me up now.”

In some companies, he says, the freethinking products of Olin might have trouble fitting in. “Does industry want people like that? I think that’s a very good question, but I think this goes beyond what industry wants,” he said. “This is the right thing to do — this is what industry needs. If the country had more people like this, we’d be in a much better situation.”


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