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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2006

Fledgling colleges beckon

By Brandie M. Jefferson
Associated Press

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Olin College of Engineering: www.olin.edu/on.asp

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NEEDHAM, Mass. When Joelle Arnold decided to go to college, she had offers from some topflight schools. MIT. Stanford. Cornell.

Instead, she chose a school that wasn't accredited and didn't even have a campus or a faculty yet: Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

Arnold is now among 65 students who are the college's first graduates. They were guinea pigs of sorts for a different style of teaching engineering that included exposure to entrepreneurship and humanities. At the same time, they got a chance to help build a college from scratch.

The bonus for going to the fledgling institution? A scholarship with full tuition.

At her parents' urging, she set up an interview. After meeting with some faculty and students, "I realized not only how rigorous the work would be, but what type of neat people we'd have around ... I fell in love with the place."

The college was built with a $460 million charter from the Olin Foundation, known for awarding grants to schools for land development. The school's mission is to broaden the scope of engineering programs to include substantial training in business and humanities.

Olin was chartered in 1998 and began accepting students for the 2001-02 year. Last year, there were 286 students enrolled at the six-building campus in Needham, 10 miles west of Boston.

Olin President Richard Miller said he was convinced that something needed to be done differently in engineering education especially for undergraduates. He said the curriculums were too narrow and as a result, students suffer once they reach the workforce.

"These kids, just about to get a bachelor's degree, came up to me and asked 'What's a patent? How can I make money with it?' "he said.

Ask the students if they were worried about going to a school that no one had heard of and they reply as if things like accreditation or reputation were old-fashioned. (After its first class graduates, Olin will be eligible for accreditation, and officials said it will also apply to degrees earned by its first students.)

"Accreditation is not a concern at all," said junior Lauren Hassord. "The relationship we have with our professors is so personal, so close. We hang out with them. We eat lunch with them. We baby-sit their kids. ... "

The 15 women and 15 men who were accepted into the first class spent their first year living in trailers and developing curriculum with the administration and the faculty. A construction delay put regular classes behind schedule.

The problem led to one of the school's most innovative programs, the "Olin Partners." The group of students had a chance to design an introductory class that would rely as heavily on theory as it did on engineering.

Students built a cannon from concept to launch and were graded on the distance and accuracy of firing its golf ball ammunition. It is now displayed in a glass case.