The Daily Beast recently revealed a ranking of the “25 Most Overlooked Colleges,” placing Olin at the top of their list. The publication praised the Needham school for its project-based curriculum and incomprehensible financial aid–the college pays half the tuition of every student.
Olin Professor Mark Chang, who’s currently on leave working as the director of product at edX, wouldn’t call the college “overlooked,” however.
“I think we exist a bit in the shadows of the local powerhouses like MIT and Harvard,” he says. “But really, doesn’t everyone live in those shadows?”
The areas he coins crucial are employers and graduate schools–both of which he finds are familiar with the school.
Junior Juliana Nazaré would agree, claiming, “I think the name is there at this point.” Yet, she quickly followed her statement by acknowledging people still ask her, “Are you a part of Babson,” Olin’s next door neighbor whose business school boasts the name “F.W. Olin.”
Founded in 2002, Olin is still considered new, having been built on a $460 million grant from the Frank W. Olin Foundation. With roughly 355 total undergraduates, the students and alumni have been able to construct a tight-knit community. So tight-knit, Nazaré says alumni are often pulling for the students at the companies they work for.
Yet, that could largely be because the students have done their part to build the school’s brand.
Nazaré is on the board of the Olin Foundry, a student-run club and incubator focused on fostering and promoting entrepreneurship through education, experience and employment opportunities. The Foundry team provides students with $100 in funding to mock up prototypes, or make introductions to students from outside schools, along with a slew of seasoned mentors. Most recently, Highland Capital has visited to chat about their summer program, and FilePicker.io hosted “a very frank discussion” about applying to Y Combinator.
The Foundry, and Olin as a whole, have been striving to re-design engineering education–something they have been nationally recognized for. They are not just revolutionizing engineering education, however, but rather education in general.
“I think Olin gives us a lot of say in how we run our school,” Nazaré claims. “We vote on faculty members. Every time a potential faculty member comes to the school, an email is sent out, saying, ‘Hey, have you interacted with them? We want your feedback.’”
The system sounds unorthodox, but Chang describes the community as “a big extended family,” given the school’s size.
“We tell the parents of prospective students that our job is to take care of their sons and daughters, and make sure they succeed in the Olin environment,” he says. “We don’t want anyone to wash out, fail out or not succeed. We take that to heart, and want to include the students in as much of our decision making as possible.”
At Olin, students sit on several faculty and staff committees, granted the precise voice Nazaré explains.
“Really, if our focus is on the students, on their success and using that focus to transform undergraduate education,” Chang says, “how can we not include them in deciding their own fate?”
Olin alum Dean Dieker, who’s now a software engineer at Tapjoy, commended the college’s administrative choices, as well, saying the school has done “a great job of providing an environment to explore entrepreneurial opportunities as they arrive through the creation of the Foundry.”
Students are required to take an entrepreneurship class as part of their engineering education, and are encouraged to explore the entrepreneurship classes Babson has to offer.
When starting at Olin in 2003, Dieker says the entrepreneurship program was “still in flux,” but that it only took one year for a student to start selling t-shirts emblazoned with inside, Olin-related jokes at the dining hall. The Foundry soon opened its doors and an Olin chapter of Entreprelliance, an intercollegiate entrepreneurship network, was founded.
Over the years, Olin has been able to train a new kind of student. One Dieker describes as “a multidisciplinary type of thinker” who is “able to abstract to a strategic level or tackle the most tactical technical problem.”
Chang acknowledges the same trait, claiming students are taught to be builders and makers. Because engineering is an applied science, Chang says several students are building products prior to enrolling in Olin and that, when they attend, “have instilled in them their understanding is not complete until they can act upon it in the real world.”
As students move forward with that mentality, they’re also encouraged to be lifelong learners, which they can do by immersing themselves in the startup scene. Nazaré highlights the work the Foundry has done to get students into the city, such as participate in hackMIT, in which the Olin team recently placed second overall.
“Our students are hungry for entrepreneurial experiences and have been more proactive in venturing out from our ‘Olin bubble,’” Chang says. “As a faculty, we’ve recently revisited our entrepreneurship curriculum and are committed to deeper engagement with the community.”
The College is always looking for more startups to come recruit, however. From Dieker’s standpoint, it could also be beneficial to have more startups visit and promote “how much fun it can be working and living in the startup community.”
“Olin students take a do-learn approach to just about everything–something that really blossoms in a startup environment,” Dieker says. “One of the best ways to bring this out is to throw Olin students into the mix, whether as interns or part-time employees, to continue to build the perception of the Boston startup community as an ideal destination for an Olin graduate.”
So, what are you waiting for?
As Chang says: “The reinvention of undergraduate engineering education is happening right down the road. Come on by, find out for yourself.”
Photos Courtesy of the Olin Facebook Page