I found an old email tonight. It's from the fall of last year (my final year of undergrad at Olin). It's probably applicable to institutions that are trying to create or reinvent themselves in general.

What is so special about Olin College and why?

I've been trying to figure that out - started doing interviews on this topic for my Anthropology project, actually. I'll be presenting the prelim results at Expo when I'm done analyzing them. So far, I've found it's something in the Kool-Aid. ;-)

I agree that ownership, entrepreneurship, leadership, an emphasis on education, an atmosphere of service, and so on are important aspects of the culture - or at least symptoms of an awesome culture. However...

"The O that can be told is not the eternal O.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name."
-with apologies to Lao Tzu

It's difficult to see what makes you special. However, social scientists answer this kind of question for other people all the time - we should ask them. Get some non-Olin ethnographers in here for a semester and see what they come up with, see if you can persuade someone from the Harvard Grad School of Education to use Olin as a thesis topic.*

*If you give me a couple years, I might take it up as my first PhD thesis. I think I'm going to study education first, then engineering again. (Ed. Note - my topic of study has refocused slightly since to be the intersection of how hackers learn and how undergrad engineers are taught, but... Olin's still very much a big inspiration in there, and always will be.)

How can this be captured in a few words and simple concepts?

Anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille has some unique procedures for doing what he calls "finding codes," which are simple words and concepts describing cultures and viewpoints - it may be worth it to learn more about the way his group figures these things out, since it seems that this is the sort of identity-discovery Olin needs right now.

As best I can tell, the one-word Olin descript is PIONEER. It's a very frontier American image - a gutsy, tight band of brave souls, skilled enough to improvise, preserving some aspects of their old way of life (for them, clothing/music/language; for us, classrooms/transcripts/thermo/etc) but striking out through vaguely-described, sparsely traveled territory in order to "make it" ourselves and take personal ownership of something ourselves.

What is the ideal size for Olin College and why?

I would actually hazard around 200 students (Ed. Note - Olin was about 300 students while I was there, and still is, but there was talk of doubling the size), but I realize that's pushing the envelope on the extreme-low side. This would shatter our attempts to do everything, because it'd make it obvious that that is impossible and that trying to be too much at once is what is killing us.

A small size would encourage the image of Olin as home base and bring more fresh air into the bubble - there would be even fewer premade opportunities so folks would wander out, cross-register for classes, work off-campus, start businesses, etc. but at the end of the day you come home again, and here is where you're nurtured, where you reflect on your experiences, where your posse is. A nest (of fledgling flaming sparrows, so to speak*.)

*this might be an in-joke among the class of 2007 - students can't call ourselves Phoenixes since there's only one mythological Phoenix, so we're little flaming sparrows.

The above is based on the following assumptions about things which are facilitated by smaller sizes:

  • Everyone should know everyone else. (Students especially need to talk to admin & staff more; staff workload needs to be reduced to allow them the flexibility to "build Olin" in their own way.)
  • Everyone should get involved in building the school - not just working at or attending it, but building the institution in a broader sense.
  • Funding should never, ever be a problem. (I must admit to having an ulterior motive here - I wish we could reinstate room scholarships.)

What does it mean to inspire change in engineering education on a large scale?

First, what it doesn't mean - graduating more students. More students does not mean more total alumni impact! UIUC has over 100x as many undergraduates - do they have 100x the impact we do? (I think UIUC is a great school and have many friends in the engineering program there, but what I'm trying to say is that impact doesn't scale linearly with size.)

When it comes to people, quality > quantity. True institutional agility only comes when *everyone* buys into a change, and at 300 students we're already having trouble getting everyone on the same page fast (look at how long the curriculum rev and strategic planning process is taking because we are involving the entire community!) and the solution to that is not to grow larger and then decide not to involve the entire community!

It also does not mean exporting specific content (course syllabi, etc.) We keep saying that it's not the material you cover but the way you learn how to learn that's important in college. The same goes for colleges themselves; it's not the particular way you teach or run your institution, but the way you learn to teach, the way you learn to run your institution - in short, the way you learn to change, so that your only definition is that you're indefinable and that the only prediction you can make is that you'll be unpredictable, both in wonderful ways.

We can change engineering education by... being ourselves. If we find that and do that, whatever it is, we will naturally be exporting (through example) the idea of continuous improvement and, occasionally, processes for doing so. These should be of an inspirational rather than a didactic nature. When you see someone else doing something cool at Olin, the typical response isn't to imitate them - it's to be inspired to start a cool new project of your own.

Likewise, other schools shouldn't imitate us so much as they ought to make cool changes of their own, take ownership of their own places. If we end up with lots of carbon-copies of Olin in the world, I will be very sad.

And finally, a passage I thought you'd enjoy:

"...when human beings find they enjoy or appreciate some aspect of life, they "institutionalize" it and protect it from further change. What was once a rational response to social need becomes a ritual, performed without regard to its origins. This leads to a puzzling contradiction when a society learns that it can benefit from technological change: scientific discovery becomes a kind of ritual. In this view, scientific research laboratories are the institutionalization of change; they are the facilities set up so that 'tomorrow can be better than today.'"--Richard Burke (slightly paraphrased)

Thanks for continuing to inspire and catalyze us to make... I was going to say "Olin," or "this place," but I think it's really the process of creating something you believe in that is awesome, so thank you for inspiring us to Make. Building a school is the best engineering project in the world.