Richard Miller

It is with great pleasure that I introduce SAA Honorary Board member Dr. Richard K. Miller, founding president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA. A former Suzuki parent, Dr. Miller has incorporated many aspects of the Suzuki philosophy into the studies and daily life at Olin College.

His message in 1999 to the world of science is still thought provoking:

“We are embarking on an exciting venture—creating the first independent engineering college of the new millennium. You might ask why we’re starting a new college when there are already more than 300 engineering programs in the United States. The answer is simple: We want to change the way students learn about engineering. And by creating a college from scratch, we can approach education in a whole new way—a way that will best serve the engineers of the new millennium.”

“Olin will always be bold, innovative, flexible, and creative—just like the students we have attracted. Our curriculum emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach, teamwork, hands-on design, business, creativity and communication.”

“The curriculum is based on the ‘Olin Triangle,’ a combination of rigorous science and engineering fundamentals, entrepreneurship and the liberal arts. There is a deep commitment at all levels to active learning and interdisciplinary courses built around hands-on projects. At Olin, learning and doing go together from the start. This real world approach culminates in SCOPE (Senior Consulting Program for Engineering), a significant, year-long engineering project for an actual client.”

“At Olin, it’s all about providing a context for the technical education necessary to be a good engineer. It’s about learning how to design products that really meet customers’ needs. It’s about nurturing your creativity and inventiveness. It’s about knowing how to plan, finance and market products. It’s why we support ‘Passionate Pursuits’ and ‘co-curriculars’ to help students cultivate their personal interests.”

Such thoughts have shaped the innovative start of Olin College. The following interview with Dr. Miller occurred in June 2007.

You were a keynote speaker at the 2005 SAA Leadership Retreat at Asilomar, giving a talk entitled “Good to Great: Entrepreneurial Leadership in Higher Education.” Tell us how an engineer wound up speaking to musicians. In other words, how does Olin College’s innovative curriculum relate to Suzuki?

Music has always been an important part of my life. I first learned to “stand and deliver” through solo music performances in grade school, and later in high school and eventually in college. As you may know, engineers are often shy and somewhat introverted, and music played an important part in helping me “find my voice” in life and develop the confidence to speak in public and eventually to lead. It turns out that a majority of engineers have some natural talent and interest in music. I think this is pretty well known now. But what you may not know is that the field of engineering itself has some striking similarities to the field of music. While most engineering activities require a solid background in applied mathematics and science, the heart of engineering is design—the process of creating a new device, system, or process to address a human need. Design is an inherently creative activity, and requires imagination, a “can do” attitude, a degree of playfulness, a sensitivity to aesthetics and the effect on people, the ability to simultaneously manage multiple expectations, and also can require a degree of courage. There is almost never an answer in the back of the book for an engineering design problem, and each design is unique, expressing the vision of its creator, the engineer. In this sense, I believe engineering is a “performing art” with some similarities to music.

I wound up speaking to musicians through my experience as a Suzuki parent in Iowa City, IA, at the Preucil School of Music. My younger daughter, Julia, took both piano and violin lessons there from a young age, and I had the privilege of attending violin lessons with her. She had spectacular teachers—Kimberly Meier-Sims, Christie Felsing and Lauree Christman—and by watching them artfully inspire Julia, I first realized the parallels between music and engineering. By participating as a parent in the Suzuki philosophy of teaching, I gained transformative insights in the needed changes in educational philosophy and Gestalt in engineering education. Christie and I have remained in contact after I left Iowa to begin the adventure of starting Olin College in 1999.

What projects are you involved with at the moment?

Currently, I am serving as the first President of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, an entirely new four-year college in the suburbs of Boston. Olin College is the vision of the F.W. Olin Foundation. It was created to address the needed changes in engineering education. These changes are outlined in the recent book by Tom Friedman, The World Is Flat, in which he points out how important technological innovation is to the future of the U.S., the key role that engineers play in that area, the poor state of math & science education in this country, and the declining number of our most talented youth who are both prepared for and interested in pursuing a career in this field. I was the first employee of this start-up institution in 1999. We broke ground on the new campus in May of 2000, hired our first faculty later that year, taught our first classes in fall 2002, and graduated our first class in May 2006. Leading a start-up institution with this much velocity has been thrilling—and at times, terrifying.

Tell us what is the most satisfying aspect of your career.

Although I have had wonderful opportunities to participate in engineering, build spacecraft that have explored the solar system, and lead large groups of faculty at major research universities, without a doubt the most satisfying aspect of my career is the opportunity I face each year to influence and shape the career of talented young people. The most direct way is through my occasional involvement in classroom teaching or independent study supervision, but also in working with students on committees, in small group meetings, and even at dinners in my home, which my wife hosts with me each year. We invite every student at Olin into our home for dinner or dessert each year, and we get to know many of them on a personal level. This is the most satisfying thing I do each year.

In your view, how do you see music education affecting the sciences, specifically with the students you admit to Olin and their studies once there?

As I noted earlier, there are many parallels between music performance and the practice of engineering. In addition, a majority of engineering students have a serious interest and background in music, providing a great opportunity to weave the two disciplines together in interesting ways. If you adopt this view—that engineering is a kind of performing art, and therefore we can learn from observing the most successful pedagogies in music schools—then some interesting conclusions jump out at you.

For example, the traditional approach to teaching engineering (for about the last 50 years) has involved a two-year intensive set of prerequisite courses in calculus and natural science, followed by a year of rigorous applied science courses laying out the fundamental theory of thermodynamics, electronics, aerodynamics, structural mechanics, fluid mechanics, automatic control theory, materials science, etc. Finally, in the senior year, just before graduating, engineering students are usually asked to try to actually design and build something for one semester. The analogy in a music school would be a four-year program in which students take extensive courses in music theory and musicology, but don’t touch a musical instrument until their last semester before graduation. No one would expect the graduates of such a program to be competent at music performance. And not surprisingly, many employers feel that the graduates of traditional engineering schools are not ready to practice engineering, either.

There is so much we can learn from the Suzuki approach to teaching music; some of it is directly transferable to learning engineering and the sciences. For example, at Olin College, our students immediately start working on real engineering projects in their very first semester. Then in every semester thereafter they have at least one project in which they must design something new and make it work. They are taught all the theory, too, in courses that are woven into “integrated course blocks” throughout the program. In the senior year they must successfully complete a year-long professional engineering project that is sponsored by a major corporation that is paying $50,000 for their effort. To graduate, they must present their work publicly in the spring semester and the client must feel the quality of the work meets their expectations. This is one aspect of the “performing art” dimension to our program, and in a sense it is parallel to the process of music performance. There are so many other lessons that parallel the teaching of music that I could probably write a short book on this.

Are you actively involved in teaching at Olin?

Yes, a couple of years ago I created a new seminar course entitled “Issues in Leadership and Ethics”. It is very important for every engineer to understand the importance of ethics in their work, since it often involves public safety. Nature judges our work very harshly, and doesn’t give partial credit. As an engineer, you have a responsibility to insure that the work is sound and the welfare of the client and the public is safeguarded. This course is offered to seniors at Olin, and now also to seniors at Wellesley College and at Babson College (a neighboring business college). I invited the presidents of these two colleges to join me, and we teach it together. It is based on a series of high profile guest speakers who have been through ethical crises of some kind, and the students are asked to debate the actions taken and explain how they would have handled the situation. It is a very challenging course. I also occasionally teach courses in my technical specialty (structural dynamics and structural design).

Tell us how Olin’s curriculum has developed and/or grown since its inception. In other words, what is the “state of the union” at Olin? Do you see any particular changes or trends in the development and growth of the curriculum since its opening? If so, how would you characterize them?

Olin College used a unique process to design its curriculum. We asked our founding faculty to work with 30 young students as “partners in invention” for more than a year to study best practices in engineering education around the world, then test the hypotheses in a series of outrageous educational experiments, and invent a program that takes the best ideas and uses the resources at Olin and also at neighboring Wellesley and Babson Colleges, to create a program that meets national engineering accreditation standards. The program emphasizes three things: rigorous engineering and design, entrepreneurial thinking, and creativity, innovation and the arts. In this day and age it matters less what you know than what you can do with that knowledge. Learning how to learn is more important now than learning any existing set of materials because science and engineering are exploding with new discoveries at an accelerating rate. Finally, the internet has changed the nature of “knowing” something, and the way students learn. Teamwork and continuous internet inquiry are now fundamental to successful knowledge workers, and learning teamwork skills and independent research are important priorities that are pervasive in our program.

But Olin College is seriously dedicated to continuous innovation and improvement, so none of us at Olin has tenure, and nothing at Olin has tenure–including the curriculum. So, we have an expiration date on all of our policies and procedures, including the curriculum. Our curriculum officially expires this summer, and must be reviewed and deliberately re-invented before the fall semester. There are five faculty teams currently involved in addressing specific challenges in the curriculum, and revisions are expected to be proposed soon. (Even our governing Bylaws have a five year expiration date.)

Do you presently have any contact with the Suzuki Method?

I miss those days when I could sit quietly and watch Christie work her magic with my daughter Julia. Her skillful blend of patience and encouragement balanced with gentle instruction and constant expectation of excellence were beautiful to watch. And they brought amazing results. But at this point in my life (Julia is now a senior at Tufts University), I have very little direct contact with the Suzuki Method.

When you were asked to be a member of our Honorary Board, what prompted you to say “Yes?”

How could I say “no”? Not only is it a great personal honor, but it is a chance to continue to learn from some of the most important people on earth. The Suzuki music teachers worldwide are involved in inspiring the next generation to listen to the voice within, to develop their own voices with confidence and passion, to express their deepest feelings through the incredible beauty of music, and incorporate the compassionate and uplifting principles of the Suzuki Method in other dimensions of their lives. I am very grateful for the many lessons I have learned from music and especially from the Suzuki Method, and I will do whatever I can to encourage and support its expansion.

What would you like to tell the Suzuki Association?

I think the Suzuki Association of the Americas is a remarkable group of dedicated people on an important mission. I’m sure you already know that, but you need to hear it from others outside your community. Not all important knowledge comes from books, experimentation, or any external source. It also comes from within. Nurturing that inner voice, and building the confidence to stand and deliver based on passion from within, is essential for compassion, for creativity, for leadership, and even moral reasoning. Music has a very important role to play as a direct conduit to the soul, and you are important gatekeepers who have the keys to this conduit for the next generation. Keep up your excellent work. And let’s hope we can strengthen the appreciation and understanding of real music, classical music in the growing sea of noise and trivia that dominates the entertainment scene for America’s youth today.

Editor’s Note: Interested in reading more? See the Summer 2005 issue 33#4 (p.44) of the American Suzuki Journal which features a summation of Dr. Miller’s talk at the 2005 Leadership Retreat. Further insights on Olin College’s unique curriculum can be found by visiting