Today (Thursday 12 Sept 2013) we toured the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Olin is a very new school, with the first class of freshmen entering in Fall 2002. It is still a very small school with only 350 students—smaller than most high schools. The college made a big splash in the engineering world when it started, because of very good marketing and because of the hands-on approach they are taking to teaching engineering.
The hands-on, project-based approach was very appealing to my son, who has learned most of his science and engineering (particularly CS) that way. He’s done some group projects, but mostly he’s been working on his own or been the lead engineer on the projects he’s been part of, so he liked the idea of being part of a team with other good engineering students.
We started out the day walking around campus—literally. The campus is small enough that you can circumnavigate all the buildings in about 10 minutes. (There is a large wooded area that is somewhat swampy that we did not visit.) The Olin campus is small, but the student population is so small that the campus felt deserted—even more so than the Caltech campus did.
After checking in at the admissions office, we went to sit in on the one computer class he could attend today: ENGR 3410, Computer Architecture (known to the students as CompArch). The “3” digit at the beginning indicates that this is considered a junior-level course, though the equivalent at other engineering schools would be a sophomore-level course. The difference in levels is partly from the required design courses taken by all freshmen and sophomores, which delay more field-specific courses by about a year. The class we saw was well taught—the teacher has 2 sections of the course with about 20 in each, which allowed a fair amount of student activity in the class (mainly board work in pairs or larger groups interspersed with short lectures to prepare students for the next round of board work). The material was a bit dull (number systems), but appropriate for early in the semester of a computer architecture class. Forty students taking CompArch means that about half the Olin students end up taking this course.
There were two other computer courses today (ENGR 3520,Foundations of Computer Science and ENGR 3599 Special Topics in Computing: Computer Networks), but they conflicted with the info session and tour that he had signed up for. There are only 4 computer courses in total this semester—not a lot of variety to choose from.
We had lunch at the Olin dining hall, which was mediocre dining-hall fare by Sodexo. (UCSC used to contract with Sodexo, but the quality was so low that students got the university to terminate the contract—the dining hall food quality rose substantially after UCSC started running the dining halls themselves.) Because Olin is about 1.5 miles from any restaurants, the staff and faculty each lunch in the dining hall also. This situation is different from Harvey Mudd College, where the faculty and staff eat in the dining hall despite nearby restaurants—at Olin there is little alternative. I’ve been told that some students go to Babson next door for a change (they can use the Babson dining halls on the same meal plan), but supposedly the dining halls at Babson have even worse food. Almost everyone at the Olin dining hall was eating with others—like at Harvey Mudd, they seem to have done a good job of getting students to eat together.
After lunch we had an information session and tour, each lasting an hour. We were the only family in either one—the smallest tour we’ve had yet. The tour guide gave us a lot of information, but he did seem to repeat himself a fair amount. It must be difficult giving a one-hour tour of such a tiny campus. We did not see a dorm room, but we did see a dorm kitchen, which is exactly the same size as one of the dorm rooms. As might be expected from such a recently built campus, the dorm rooms are fairly large and all the facilities in excellent condition. Olin makes a big deal out of student involvement in improving the campus, so a lot of the things we were shown were prefaced by remarks about how students had decided they wanted x, and got the funding from the college to do it themselves. That’s a nice approach—particularly on a brand-new campus, but I don’t know how long the college will have the space and the funding to support student initiatives. I don’t think that they’ll run short in the next four years though.
Olin seems to be preparing engineers primarily for industry—only about 35% go on to grad school. One of the bigger recruiters on campus is Microsoft, and students are provided with a Windows laptop when they first register on campus, loaded with lots of software useful to mechanical engineers (but not much for CS students). Based on what we saw of the design labs and project labs, Olin looks like a great place to do undergrad studies in mechanical engineering and materials science, but not so great for computer science and computer engineering. They had just enough computer engineering to be able to do robotics, but not much depth past that.
We had dinner in the dining hall with a couple of Olin students, including one from FWOP (Franklin W. Olin Players), the main theater club on campus. They do a couple of plays a year, plus a few shorter one-act productions. Students can also do theater at Babson and Wellesley colleges—male actors are particularly in demand for Wellesley productions, because Wellesley College is still an all-female college. Overall, it sounded like there was plenty of opportunity for acting at Olin—not as many options as at Brown, but fewer students competing for the parts available.
The big plus for Olin, project-based curriculum, was offset by the small, isolated campus and lack of depth in computer science. Overall, my son rated Olin fairly low on his list, along with Caltech. Both would be great schools for some students, and he could do reasonably well at either one, but they did not seem like as good a fit as schools higher on his list.
Update 2013 Sept 14: I forgot to mention of Olin’s big pluses: the final admissions decisions are made by faculty, not non-academic staff. This means that applications to Olin can include technical material that most admissions officers would just be mystified by.
This is probably the last college tour we’ll do this fall. He may apply to some colleges that we haven’t toured yet, but visit only if he is accepted at them.