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October 06, 2007


Comparing Olin's integrated approach to IM math is a very interesting comparison to make. My high school, St. Paul Central, in Minnesota, decided to switch to IM eight years ago, realised that it was a disastrous mistake, and just this year decided to switch back. The key benefit of integrated math was that it did indeed help students at the bottom 10% achieve better math scores, but it also at varying levels hurt the upper 90%'s ability to learn math. Exactly as you said above, the net gain was terrible, parents complained, and its now going away. Simply put, teaching math by trying to ask kids to discover calculus just doesn't work.

So why should it work at the college level?

First off, Olin does not teach math, physics, etc. by asking you to discover them. We don't talk much about it, but for those style courses it's still lectures combined with problem sets. Traditional learning works well to get out the introduction to the material. However, instead of forcing the student to understand the implications of what they learn through problem sets, the instant that the student is slightly comfortable working with the concept, learning is moved to a project. This is why Olin is not integrated math - the projects enforce the major concepts, instead of the projects discovering the major concepts.

In our Integrated Course Blocks for freshman physics/math that means as soon as you hear the lecture and do the math for E&M, you're building, and more importantly, mathematically optimising a coil-gun. In a project, students are more hands on, learn a larger variety of skills, and best of all, find themselves researching further into a specific topic to learn more. The real beauty of Olin's curriculum is that through this, they're teaching us how to teach ourselves most amazingly well. This cycle is repeated in most all courses: Groundwork leads to Project/Field work which leads to Independent Research.

So what's Olin's real problem then? Time. It has been a struggle to cover the same material in a traditional curriculum with all the projects. Already students work at least 60-80 hours a week on coursework every week, with crunchweeks easily hitting 100 hours. Our graduates have less depth in terms of coursework then an average engineering graduate in their field (but still accredited!) because they have far more exposure to entrepreneurship and design. A fifth year has definitely been debated. But unlike the what the NY times said, our graduates have indeed gone off into real world engineering jobs! Last year, 41% of grads took engineering jobs and 16% went to engineering/science grad school. http://www.olin.edu/about_olin/news/pr_single.asp?id=290.

Finally, so are we the future? Maybe ;) or maybe not. Time will tell. We're still working on trying to export the curriculum to other schools, and that will be the true test of our success.

-Michael Ducker
Olin College '09

I think Olin is a great experiment. I don't think we have enough data yet to make a determination of whether it is a successful one. I do worry if the previous comment is right about working hours (or even close) - I know when I was in school at Davidson College it was said (from some study or studies) to have the 2nd hardest workload of any college (Columbia was first). I didn't work that hard - certainly nowhere close to 40 hours a week. I can't remember but there estimates were something far above 40 hours of work a week - maybe 60?

Olin's concept appeals to me a great deal. But I think we need to see what the results show. Unfortunately I don't think that is an easy process. If you try a radical education idea it makes sense that you might need to make adjustments in the early years. And it can also take many years to access how effective education is. Putting those 2 factors together makes it even more difficult.

I hope we can look forward to many years to evaluate how things are going. If I were helping steer the process I would be very worried about the workload and make adjustments if it really were taking above 50 hours a week of student work.

In answer to at least one of your questions I am very glad we have Olin in place. I think the experiment at Olin is very worthwhile - a full 4 year program (not a limited 1 year capstone). I think it will prove to be valuable but we will have to see. My guess, is that if it seems to work the good ideas will be adopted more readily overseas than in the USA but we will have to see about that too.

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