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Olin College Leadership Receives Gordon Prize, Engineering’s most prestigious award for education innovation

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Olin College of Engineering’s three founding academic leaders, Richard Miller, David Kerns and Sherra Kerns, received one of engineering’s highest honors – the Bernard M. Gordon Prize. The $500,000 prize is awarded by the National Academy of Engineering to recognize innovation in engineering and technological education.

“This team of educational innovators has had a profound impact on society by improving the way we educate the next generation of engineers,” said NAE President Charles M. Vest. “Olin serves as an exemplar for the rest of the engineering world and a collaborative agent for change.”

Armed with one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education, the F. W. Olin Foundation recruited Richard Miller as Olin’s first employee in 1999. To help build the college from scratch, Miller recruited the founding academic leadership team including David Kerns and Sherra Kerns later that year. Together, they developed a vision for an engaging approach to teaching engineering and a new culture of learning that is intensely student centered.

“We literally had the chance to start over in higher education and develop a new paradigm for engineering education, addressing at once all the concerns raised about engineering education at the time,” said Richard Miller, founding and current president of Olin.

To insure a fresh approach, Olin does not offer tenure, has no academic departments, offers only degrees in engineering, and provides large merit-based scholarships to all admitted students.

Perhaps the most important contribution the Gordon prize recipients made was the creation of a profoundly inclusive and collaborative process of experimentation and decision-making involving students in every aspect of the invention of the institution. This is illustrated by the decision in 2001 to recruit 30 young students to spend a year as “partners” in residence with the faculty in conducting many experiments together before establishing the first curriculum.

“As entrepreneurs, we learn to listen to our customers. Olin’s innovative approach was co-created by enterprising faculty, inspired students, and a dedicated staff, as well as collecting and integrating innovative approaches from more than 30 other institutions worldwide,” said David Kerns, current faculty at Olin and founding provost and chief academic officer of the college from 1999 to 2007.

With the extensive help of a collaborative team of faculty and students, and the guidance of the late Dr. Michael Moody, a novel academic program emerged. Some of the features include a nearly gender-balanced community, a strong focus on design process throughout all four years, extensive use of team projects, a requirement that students repeatedly “stand and deliver” to the entire community at the end of every semester, an experiential requirement in business and entrepreneurship, a capstone requirement outside of engineering, and a year-long corporate-sponsored design project in which corporations pay $50,000 per project.

“Engineering is a fundamentally creative endeavor and the more perspectives that contribute to a solution, the better the solution. From the beginning, we sought to design programs attractive to all people. Today, we graduate a higher percentage of women than any other co-ed engineering program in the country,” said Sherra Kerns, current faculty and founding VP of Innovation and Research.

The new learning model, and the inclusive process that produced it, are attracting substantial international attention. In the past three years about 200 universities have visited Olin to benchmark and explore ways of initiating major changes in their own curriculum. Nine other institutions have already made substantial changes that were inspired by the Olin program and dozens of others are considering such changes.

Dr. Richard Miller, as the President and first employee, provided the strategic vision and overall leadership of all aspects of the process of developing this new institution, including the shaping of its academic and institutional mission. Dr. David Kerns, as Founding Provost, recruited Olin’s founding faculty and deans, led the establishment of the collaborative faculty process resulting in Olin’s three program curricula, and established the employment relations for faculty in an environment without tenure. Dr. Sherra Kerns, as Founding VP of Innovation and Research, led the initiative to establish a gender-balanced community, led the efforts to achieve all levels of accreditation for the new programs, and led in creating a culture of innovation and intellectual vitality throughout the institution. All three also contributed to specific dimensions of the academic program, together with the faculty and students.

Please click here to view the press release in its entirety.


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