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Richard K. Miller has been on a long intellectual journey.

His ambitions started out modest enough: Growing up in the small farming community of Tranquillity, California, he thought that bridges were the pinnacle of engineering and that the people who designed them must be brilliant beyond imagining. As an engineering college student, he landed a summer internship for the Fresno County public works department, where someone explained to him that bridges were usually designed, not from scratch, but by choosing parts out of a catalog.

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The real action, it seemed, was in writing the catalog. To do that, he was told you need a master’s degree, and so he set his eyes on graduate school. But it would turn out that the catalog engineer was solving the same problem over and over. Miller wanted to work on problems that didn’t have solutions. For that, he learned he’d need a Ph.D.

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He got one, became an engineering professor, then a dean of engineering. Then, in the late 1990s, he got a call asking him to help design an entire engineering college from scratch, and to rethink what engineering education should be. Today, Miller is the president and first employee of Olin College, considered one of today’s most innovative science and technology campuses.

He’s a long way from the farm. But in some sense the object of his curiosity is still the question he had as a young man: What makes an engineer?

Earlier this month, Miller sat down with Nautilus to talk about what he’s learned.

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To see the video interview, click the “play” button at the top of this article.

Interview Transcript

What’s wrong with how we teach engineering today?

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Imagine that you had a son or a daughter who was a prodigy on the violin and you felt, as a parent, obligated to give them the best possible education you could find for a musician. You enroll them in a music academy that’s highly specialized for this field. If that music academy taught music the way [that] the mainstream higher education today teaches engineering, this is how the curriculum would unfold: In the first year, you would be asked to teach, for example, a year-long course in the physics of vibrations of strings. So you would learn about mode shapes and natural frequencies, and pitch, and so forth.

In the second year, you’d take a year-long course in the theory of music, so you would be taking courses in melody and harmony, point and counterpoint, and tempo, and all of this. In the third year, you would take a course on orchestration, so you would learn all about how you blend voices with the woodwinds, with the percussion. And in the fourth year, if you are still here, we would give you a real violin and we would ask you to play a scale on the violin and then we give you a degree in music.

As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s not too different from the program in engineering which I took. You didn’t actually get to touch the violin until the senior year. I never actually built or designed anything until the last semester of an eight-semester program. By the way, it never worked—the project that I created—it didn’t seem to matter: I graduated at the top of my class and I got a fellowship to go to MIT, so they didn’t care about it either.

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What we’ve done in the way we teach engineering today is so overcommitted to the basic science behind engineering that we’ve omitted the whole act of discovery, of framing the right problem. The Wright Brothers would not be interested in engineering the way it’s taught today.

If you look at the numbers [from] last May, during commencement season, millions of students across the U.S. completed their bachelor’s degrees, but fewer than 5 percent of them completed a bachelor’s degree in any kind of engineering at any university in America today.

By the way, that compares with about 12 percent in Europe and about 30 percent in Asia. Of the kids who are starting this fall to major in engineering—are just getting underway in their fall term—fewer than half of them will ever graduate in engineering. Some of them might graduate in other disciplines, but they are going to leave engineering. A really substantial fraction of those who leave have higher grades than those who stayed, it’s really what we call the math-science death march through the curriculum that drives them out.

What is an engineer?

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The definition of engineering that’s very commonly used today is probably off. If you think about what engineers do, they are people that create new things that change the world. So we’ve concluded that an engineer is a person who envisions what’s never been and then does whatever it is to make it happen.

Now, the interesting thing about that definition is that it doesn’t even include the word science; in fact it’s implicit. And secondly, it doesn’t begin with mathematics; it begins with vision. Unless you have vision for new things—things that have never been yet—and have the passion to complete whatever it takes to make it happen, we don’t believe you are an engineer. You may well be an applied scientist, something of that sort, but that’s great.

One example for this is like the aircraft industry, [which] was invented by two bicycle mechanics in Ohio—not by physicists in a lab. These guys used the process of engineering.

We’ve also concluded that engineering is not a body of knowledge. Yes, it involves knowledge, but engineering is fundamentally a process, and it’s the process of engineering—like what the Wright Brothers did—which is most engaging, which is most fun, and which is what students love to do as well.

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Why do you believe engineering is the new liberal arts?

If you look at the trends over the last 30 years in higher education as a whole, we’ve seen a decline in the general education requirements and competencies of students at almost all universities in STEM subjects.

Here is the way to look at it: You can major in history at any major university and you’ll have a math requirement. But if you look at the math requirements that are counted for general education, they are math for history majors or they are math for people who aren’t really interested and committed to making a STEM career. There are lots of physics for poets sorts of courses out there; but there aren’t any courses in history or English or philosophy for STEM majors. You have to take the same English, history, and philosophy course that the majors in those disciplines take in order to complete those general education requirements.

Over time, what’s happened, I believe, is that the competence in the STEM fields of college graduates in America has weakened, but the competence in the verbal and social science fields has not. That really means, at the end of the day, it’s the engineering graduates who still have the well-rounded rigorous background in all disciplines that used to be there for all majors. That helps explain one of the interesting facts, that engineering graduates are over represented among CEOs of S&P 500 companies.

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I believe there are a number of references on this: Spencer Stuart does a study of the backgrounds of CEOs of his companies every year and while engineering graduates make up only about less than 5 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in America, they make up about 25 percent of the CEOs.

Does project-based learning only work for very bright students?

Well, that’s obviously the first worry that everyone has. Well this might be great for geniuses, right? So if you have gazillions of dollars and geniuses then maybe this is a cool thing to do. That’s a worry that we take very seriously. We’ve been working specifically with other universities that don’t have especially precocious students or very demanding entrance requirements to see if the principles that we’re using will still work.

We have a very mature program and partnership with the University of Texas, El Paso. University of Texas, El Paso is one of the highest producers of Hispanic background engineers in the U.S. A good fraction of those students drive over the river from Mexico every day to take classes. They are an open-enrollment university, which in a sense means that the only two entrance requirements are a pulse rate and a high school diploma. This is not what you would call a school that’s restricted for highly precocious students. We’ve been doing this for two or three years with them and the results, so far, are remarkable. They are getting the same kinds of answers that we are.

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It turns out that this business of finding out what students are passionate about and empowering them with what we call designed thinking—which is the ability to frame the right questions for the right problem to solve, and show them how to develop the materials at their own—that this works at every level of the educational spectrum.

How does Olin tackle the motivation problem?

Every student at Olin—in about the second semester I think—takes a course in which we put them in a small team, maybe five students, and we ask them to identify a group of people whose lives they want to change—not someday, but within the next four months. We’re pretty lenient about who they come up with, but let me give you a case study so that you’ll get some real texture to this.

One group of students said, “Well, my grandmother has Alzheimer’s now and we went to visit her in the holiday. She is in an assisted living facility. Everything has changed for her; I would like to do something to improve the lives of the elderly.”

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We said fine. Let’s identify 10 elderly people within a 10-minute drive of our campus who will agree to allow you to interview them for two hours. Then this team of five students has 20 hours of interviews with 10 people who are in that representative group. At the end of two weeks, they come back and they’ve answered the fundamental question: What does it mean to be elderly in America today? What they find out is that the question has a lot of dimensions. What does it in terms of age? What does it mean in terms of lifestyle, in terms of food, in terms of entertainment? But most importantly, what does it mean in terms of what keeps you up at night? What are they most worried about?

As they construct this sociological profile of [older folks], they conclude that there is an arch to this that they heard in everybody’s comments, and that is a fear about what happens when the day comes that you are no longer able to walk: You are immobile. From that day on, you are living in a wheelchair and they heard things like, well, from that day on you no longer can look people in the eye; now you look at their belt buckle and they look down on you. By the way, you can’t walk so you can’t burn calories, so your metabolism changes, it’s very hard to control your weight. In fact, it’s even hard to know what your weight is. So they are talking about this.

The students, who are about 19 at this point, came up with an idea, “Well, wait a minute, we don’t know we can do this but I imagine it’s not hard: What if we were to invent a little carpet that has pressure sensors and you could drive your wheelchair onto the carpet. There is an RFID radio transmitter on the carpet and it transmits a signal to your cell phone and your cell phone has a piece of software that will translate this and in fact subtract out the tear weight of the wheelchair and just tell you what you weigh. Would that be of any interest to you?”

They go back to these 10 people and they explained “well, we have been thinking about this, we don’t know whether this is a good idea, what do you think?” The 10 people just go ballistic and they said, “Well, I mean it’s not going to keep us from getting old, but it’s sure going to make our life better. You think you can actually make one?”

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The kids come back to campus and now they are on fire. Where do we learn about pressure sensors? Who can tell us on the faculty about radio transmitters and how long do we have to wait before we can do software development? They are pulling us to the curriculum. They are not saying, “Well I guess the next semester I have to take Physics 102.”

The two things that are happening there is that they care about these people. This is intrinsic motivation. These are people that they told us they cared about, so you have to find what kids care about first. Secondly, you do everything you can to help them find the answers to the questions that they are interested in as empowerment. When they get through with this, they are convinced that they can now change the world; they can make a difference in people’s lives.

By the way, in this particular case, these kids built a prototype in about four months after they got through this—on their own. The next course in the curriculum is how to start and run a business. They wound up competing in a business plan competition for neighboring Babson College, won the prize, and used the capital to start their own company. Today, they are not working for Boeing or going to Harvard Business School; they are running their own company because they are intrinsically motivated. The average kid at Olin when they walk across the stage has completed 20 to 25 design build projects. They believe that engineering is about making things, it’s not about finance. My belief is that every kid is passionate about something; everyone cares about somebody.

What is mindset and how do you teach it?

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There is a great deal of work now on changing mindset. I’m not sure if you are aware of Carol Dweck at Stanford. Carol is a professor of psychology. She just won the Atkinson Prize at the National Academy of Sciences this spring for the work that she summarizes in a book called Mindset.

What she did is she worked for 25 years with young students, in K-12, about what it is about their beliefs of who they are and what they are capable of doing [that] has an impact on their ability to learn. The fundamental thing that she found is that the teacher shapes a lot of this belief, which determines their outcome.

In particular, if you have a student and give them their test back and say, “Congratulations, I’m proud of you because this test shows that you are very smart,” you’ve made a huge mistake in terms of inspiring them to do more, to grow their academic achievement. Instead, you should be telling them, “Congratulations I’m proud of you! You did well on this test because you worked so hard. If you continue to work hard there is no limit to what you can achieve.”

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If you think that your success in life is because of your intelligence that you were born with, and you think that that’s a fixed quantity like your eye color, then there is nothing you can do about it and students wind up shying away from work. In fact, if you work hard, then it’s evidence that you are not smart. This really is a big turning point in children’s lives.

That’s the tip of the iceberg, I believe, of a whole area called mindset, and let me explain another issue here. It turns out that companies are desperate to find employees today with mindset, not just knowledge and skill. If you look at groups like IBM, which has something called the T-shaped employee, what they mean by that is the tall vertical stem is about depth in a particular discipline. The horizontal bar across the top is the ability to communicate well with people in other disciplines, and that breadth is the part that they are worried about.

You get the same kind of thing from a group called STEMconnector, which is talking about workforce 2.0; Business-Higher Education Forum has a list. They are all talking about things like the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to think creatively across disciplines, the ability to think in a designed sense, the ability to have ethical empathetic motivations in life, and the ability to think globally. These are what’s called soft skills. They are all about mindset, so the question is can you teach it, and Carol Dweck has shown mindset is not some fuzzy concept. It can be defined in precise terms; it can be measured; it can be taught; and it can have measurable impact over a long period of time. We can do this. In fact, I believe every time you walk into the classroom and you pick up a piece of chalk to teach calculus you are not just teaching calculus, you are teaching mindset.

Why do you consider Israel’s Technion to be such a good example of mindset?

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A few years ago, maybe months ago now, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about the new Cornell Tech campus that’s going in on Roosevelt Island. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this. Cornell picked the Technion in Israel as a partner in putting this campus together.

Now this was a rather surprising thing for the reporter, why Cornell would go abroad to pick a partner. They interviewed Peretz Lavie, who is the president of the Technion, and they asked him why he thought they were chosen. He said well, the primary reason is that Israel, and in particular the Technion, is a generator of an enormous number of successful spinoff companies that have changed the economy and put Israel on the map, that it’s in fact one of the most successful centers of new tech invention in the world.

That confused the reporter even more he says, “Now this doesn’t make any sense. Israel is like one of the most fragile, risky locations on the planet. Haven’t you noticed that there are people around you on all sides who are pointing missiles at you? How could you possibly be inventing stuff?” And that’s where Peretz Lavie stopped and he said, “No, you got it exactly wrong.” He said, “You can’t live in Israel without being an optimist. You have to imagine that the world could be a better place and you have to realize it’s only going to happen if you take the initiative to make it happen.”

That’s the essence of this growth mindset that Carol Dweck is talking about, that’s the essence of what it means to be an entrepreneur, and that’s certainly the essence of what Olin thinks of as being an engineer. It’s a mindset.

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Why are so many of today’s education innovations being driven by engineers?

I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the most innovative dimensions to higher education today are being developed in engineering schools—not just Olin. You may have heard of MOOCs for example, that came out of Stanford; and MIT and edX program: These didn’t just coincidentally happen from engineering schools. Not only is it about technology, but there is something about engineering [that] I think predisposes it to being in the right place at the right time, and here is what it is:

If you are the president of a major state university that has a whole array of different undergraduate programs, one of the things that you notice is only one of those undergraduate disciplines has a requirement for an external accreditation and that’s engineering. There is no accreditation board for economics or for English or for history, but there is for engineering.

What does that matter? What that means is [that] at least every six years, and usually more frequently, you are forced to have a conversation with people in industry who come in and talk with you about what you are doing with your educational program and what’s needed when people leave. These conversations, if you talk to engineering beings, are rarely fun or congenial, but there are dose of reality. That provocation—and the requirement that you meet their expectations in order to continue your program—motivates them to try things [that] people who are in a much more insular environment with no need to talk with people in the outside don’t ever try.

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This has actually been confirmed recently by a guy named Brandon Busteed at the Gallup Corporation. You might want to talk to him if you don’t know him—he is really a fascinating guy. He did the largest survey in history of the impact of higher education on people’s lives, their careers, and later in their career—together with Purdue University.

I just want to bring one little aspect up. He talked to 1,500 surveyed chief academic officers at major universities and he asked them what their opinion was about how successful they were at producing graduates who were well prepared for their next step in their career. It won’t surprise you to hear that they were very confident that they were doing the right thing, something like 95 percent believe that the graduates are extremely well prepared for the next step in their career.

But Gallup being Gallup, they also interviewed an equal number of people who are HR directors at major companies—same question. They didn’t get the same answer: It’s more like 10 to 15 percent. There is a gap there, and the gap is growing.

The person in the corporate world … Well the person in the academic world is basically saying we’ve never produced graduates who are better at solving the calculus problems than they are today. They do them quicker, they are more efficient. The people in the corporate world are saying so what? That has no relevance to what we need. We need graduates who can collaborate with others, who were creative, who can work on real world problems, who can make a difference in the world. That’s a mindset issue, and higher education has been blind to their responsibility to shape the mindset of the next generation. This is a big issue now.

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If I put you in a room with a bunch of engineering graduates, how would you pick out the Olin graduate?

That’s a really interesting question because we’ve actually seen this before, and I’ve seen this with employment screening tests at different companies. Here is the way it would turn out: If you were going to look for the non-Olin graduate and you would have an oral exam with an applicant for the new entry level job at your company, then ask them very specific questions about the particular engineering courses.

You would say, “I’m going to design a heat-transfer fin for an air-cooled gasoline engine and this is what the fins look like on this motorcycle. Can you tell me what the heat transfer law is and tell me what the link for the fin should be if it’s made out of aluminum to transfer this amount of heat per minute?” Or you could say, “I have a spring that has a rate constant of 10 pounds per inch and I’m hanging on it a 5-pound weight and the base of this spring and mass is wiggling at two cycles per second. What’s the natural frequency of this device and how much does it move?”

Those are the kinds of questions that you see in engineering courses. The Olin students will fall asleep if you talk about that. They can eventually find the answer but it’s not at the tip of their tongue; it is not what makes them wake up. The question that separates the Olin students is the question in which nobody knows there is an answer and the students are asking whether this is the right question. Do you have the right people in the room? Have you framed the question right? Why does this question matter?

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That’s where the other students from the other programs just freak out—that’s not engineering, we don’t know what to do there. It turns out that’s what makes the most difference. If you are going to design a new product, you don’t already know what the equations are. You need somebody who can think out of the box, who can understand what the purpose of the device is, and who are the right people that you need to assemble in order to answer the questions.

Why doesn’t Olin grant tenure?

Well, why give them that? I mean, one of the problems is that it’s irrelevant and it tends to feed a mindset. Here is an illustration: A few years ago, you might remember we had a financial crisis in this country, in 2008, the Great Recession. If you walked around a major university campus—let me say a state university just for illustration—and you talked to faculty members at the coffee machine and you asked them about the difficulty in this recession you might hear comments like, “Gee, this is really dangerous, I wonder what they are going to do about it.”

If you did that at a school that doesn’t have tenure, like Olin, the conversation will be just slightly different. You ask them about the recession, they say, “Well, this is a very difficult problem. I wonder what we are going to do about it.” They have skin in the game. They realize that it’s our institution as a whole that’s at stake; it’s not somebody else’s job to worry about the institution. That’s an important distinction, I believe.

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I mean, there are some subtle things as well. The percentage of women on engineering faculty members is not the same as the percentage of men. It’s been very low for many years. Part of the problem, I believe, is the way the tenure system works where there is a clock running and within seven years you have to have a certain number of accomplishments done or you don’t qualify for tenure.

What if you are a woman and you start your family in that period? What happens is that you put yourself at a disadvantage in the promotion process. You get off the clock, right, and a lot of the reviewers don’t pay much attention to why you got off the clock. You are just off the clock so maybe that’s a reason to be worried about productivity. What if you don’t have a clock? What if you don’t have tenure? This makes quite a difference.

There is a series of other issues as well. One of them is that tenure is a lifetime commitment to an individual rather than to what they are doing. You discover that as people mature in their career—from the time they are 25 and they join you as an assistant professor until the time they are 70 when they leave—there are certain sort of seasons in their life where they are really good at research; other parts of their life, they really care about young people and about mentoring and about teaching; and some parts of their career where they care about building new programs; and the tenure system doesn’t recognize that. Everybody does the same thing all the time—it’s like 40-40-20, teaching, research, and service, and you have to produce this.

What if a person just decides that they don’t really have an interest in doing the same teaching thing for the rest of their career, or maybe they are no longer excited about competing for research grants—they would like to do something different. Well, then it turns out that the flexibility that’s available to an institution that doesn’t have tenure and can redirect your whole purpose for the next five years in a new direction is a real advantage.

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How did you decide to become an engineer?

My dad sort of said I came out of the egg hatched to be an engineer. I always liked to make stuff. When I was a young kid, I mentioned I was in a farming community and the school was not great. I was the sort of kid who wouldn’t come in as long as the sun was out. I was outside making stuff. I had tons of lumber in the backyard and hammers and I was always building things, and I thought engineers built things. That sounded like the perfect thing to me.

I originally thought I wanted to be a bridge engineer and actually I discovered after I got into my education that I didn’t want to be an engineer—it’s kind of an interesting thing. I thought the pinnacle of engineering—because I had never met an engineer until I went to the university—was bridges. I thought like the Golden Gate Bridge, because I was in California, man, the person who designed the Golden Gate Bridge must be like the smartest person on the planet. Maybe I could be like that!

One summer I had an internship, which I think was in the county public works department in Fresno in California, and that winter there was a lot of rain and it had washed out some of the culverts and the small bridges out in the county. I actually got associated with the bridge department and I thought, “Man this is like, perfect!” So I brought all my books with me—the stress analysis books, the concrete design—and I brought my slide rule because in those days that was the thing we used.

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I sat down [and] on the first day, he brought out this picture, aerial photographs of the bridge that had been washed out. Then he brought another book that had the blueprints for how the bridge was designed. And then he brought out something he called the bridge book. He dropped down this big thick book on my desk I was like, “Man, this must be like the Ph.D. level analysis for bridges.” I opened the thing up and you know what it is? It’s essentially a Sears catalogue. You flip through the pages until you find the bridge that looks the most like the one that got washed out. You’d make two small calculations down in the corner—one of them is like the length times the width times the height and it tells you the volume of concrete; and the other one tells you how many tons of steel. You put them on this little form and you put the serial number of that bridge and you hand it to the contract department and they go out and bid it to the contractors.

I said, “Wait a minute! I mean, when do I get to calculate the stresses and decide where the steel bars should go?” And he says, “Well we couldn’t possibly ask you to do that. You might make a mistake, and if you make a mistake then the bridge could fall down. We never ask our bridge engineers to actually calculate stuff because that’s too risky.” “This is it? This is what you do as a bridge engineer? You look in a catalogue and you write down the serial number and that’s it?” And he says, “Yes, that’s pretty much it, that’s what do.” “Who gets to make the catalog? Who gets to make this thing?” “Well you have to have a master’s degree to do that, and that’s done in Sacramento.” I’m like a freshman and I’m saying, “I guess I have to go for a master’s degree if you actually want to make stuff.”

Eventually I figured out the guy who does the catalogue has a pretty boring job too. You just keep solving the same problem over and over again but with a little bit different geometry so it’s like rotated at 45 degrees now rather than 30 degrees. I said, “This is not fun. So when do you get to work on problems that don’t have solutions?” “Well then you have to have a Ph.D.” Okay. Then I wound up going on for a Ph.D. It just never ends.

By the way, the Ph.D. is a license to do research, that’s what it’s about. It’s how to define a problem that nobody has solved yet, pioneer a solution to it, and get it published, that’s what they do. Of all my friends who have Ph.D.s I can’t name a single one who is still working on a problem even remotely related to the one they did their Ph.D. on. It’s completely different. It’s basically a way of thinking that allows you to think outside the box for new problems. In my case, I obviously got way off the farm and now engineering is an academic institution, not a device.

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