East Coast: Hands-on, project based learning & Ninjas!!

By: Luis Bango

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By the time our day-long tour of Olin College ended, we were both energized and inspired.  Most of the three hour drive home was dedicated to excited talk about everything we saw during our visit. The small, prestigious engineering school in Needham, Massachusetts prides itself on offering courses that focus on project-based learning, collaboration as well as student voice and agency.  We saw many examples of these elements throughout the day.

One example that stood out was support and collaboration through the use of student ninjas. Most Olin courses have at least one student assigned to them to serve as a course assistant, also known as NINJA (Need Information Now? Just Ask.)  Ninjas typically hold office hours and/or study sessions and generally serve as a resource for students in the class.  They often review homework assignments in conjunction with a faculty member.

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Ninjas are also trained “experts” in many of the machining tools available for student use.  The heart of the academic learning takes place in the Machine Shop.  This is where the ideas and concepts of student projects take physical form.  Students can fabricate their projects using shop equipment but first need to complete an introductory course led by a student ninja.  The objective of the course is to provide students the knowledge to safely operate manual devices and machines such as milling machines and lathes.  The tutorials are machining projects designed to emphasize basic machine shop operations.  This mini-courses becomes an important foundation from which students can build their skills and knowledge.

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As you can see from the photos that accompany this blog entry, many of the ninjas are women engineering students.  Only about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees in this country go to women.  Olin College is proud to be an outlier: half its students are women. One reason for this might be a contextual approach to engineering that emphasizes purpose and design.  

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One of our student guides emphasized that projects like SCOPE (Senior Capstone Program in Engineering) that emphasize communication/presentation skills as well as have a strong collaborative component also contribute to the strong female presence.  SCOPE connects teams of Olin students with organizations and major businesses where seniors work in multi-disciplinary teams to provide innovative solutions to a company’s real-world problems.  This supports the philosophy is that learning occurs through immersion in real-world applications.  Students engage in a hands-on approach from day one; the solutions they devise in the classroom must work for open-ended problems.

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I’m thrilled we were able to visit not only secondary schools during this tour  but also institutions like Olin College that offer wonderful ideas, philosophies and methodologies that can inspire our designs for increasing student engagement and preparing our students with hands-on, real-world, authentic learning experiences.