MetaOlin: Applied Interdisciplinary Study for the Olin Context

The following is the executive summary of the final report for an independent study course designed by 6 Olin College students in the Spring 2007 Semester. The six students involved in the course were: Mel Chua, Chris Dellin, Boris Dieseldorff, Chandra Little, Marco Morales, and Andy Pethan. For additional information on other Olin Student Courses see the Wikiversity page here.
### A Short Description

MetaOlin was an independent study taken by six students during the Spring 2007 semester. The goal of MetaOlinwas to apply mental models from several engineering-related and social disciplines in order to develop a holistic understanding of how engineering and/or social problems interact and depend on each other. Throughout the semester students researched, read, and discussed appropriate material in multiple disciplines. The course was structured as a seminar-style class composed of six different modules. Each discipline-focused module of the course used Olin as a common context to understand how different approaches are critical to gaining a holistic understanding of a system. Each module finished with some form of deliverable, all of which were brought together into a final document.

The list of modules in chronological order is below, along with the professor that taught the module and some major themes from the module.

  1. Systems Engineering – Brian Bingham – stocks and flows, diagrams, feedback (Final deliverable in  this post)
  2. Diversity – Zhenya Zastavker – backpack of privilege, epistemic privilege
  3. Information Literacy – Dee Magnoni – exponential growth of information, lifelong learning (Final deliverable in this post)
  4. Communications – Raymond Yim – transmitters/receivers, linear algebra, applied to pedagogy
  5. History – Robert Martello – synthesis of narrative and analysis
  6. Pedagogy – Chris Morse – active learning, grades and assessment, misconceptions

A Longer Description and Some Connections

Many of the fundamental ideas listed above are linked to one another. One possible set of connections is pictured below, along with some of the deliverables connected to those fundamental models. As can be seen, linear algebra from wireless communications can be used as a model for learning in the classroom, which is highly related to the misconceptions that students have that prevents them from learning, which can be corrected by techniques such as active learning. A misconception in pedagogy is that teaching to “special” students such as ESL students or students with learning disabilities will only help a small subset of students, but students are actually on a learning continuum and the teaching (which can be thought of as broadcasting from a transmitter) will reach different students with different levels of success (think of receivers, with lossy channels). Teachers can take advantage of things such as peer to peer teaching to improve the system, and can also use the idea of feedback between the students and themselves. Feedback in systems other than pedagogy can be used along with the concept of stocks and flows to understand why burnout happens in an institution such as Olin, although we have to recognize that all models arebroken. In fact, “the best model for a cat is a cat; preferably the same cat.”We all have misconceptions that appear in our personal models of ourselves and the world. One area where we discovered our misconceptions was during the diversity module, where those with epistemic privilege (authors and members of the independent study) showed us the areas where we were carrying “backpacks of privilege”. In other words, it is often the case that we can only see privilege when we are not beneficiaries of it, so we rely on others with this privileged point of view to kick us out of our mental models. We do this by gaining more knowledge about the world using information literacy skills, which we try to teach through a co-curricular syllabus that we assembled for our third module.

In addition to learning mental models and making connections between them, we learned a number of skills and lessons with life-long implications:

  • Being passionate about thinking about things can be intensely rewarding
  • Discussing and being passionate “about thinking about things” with people with the same passion can be even more rewarding
  • Discussing and working with people with the same passions and work habits can be very time-consuming and dangerous
  • How the transfer of knowledge between classes can be an integral part of the learning process itself
  • Learning how to find our balance within a group
  • Learning how to find our role within a group
  • Learning about organizing a group
  • Leadership capabilities
  • Founded & Developed relationships with one another and with our professors
  • Understanding how each of us communicates to facilitate understanding between one another
  • Having a deep sense for each other’s mannerisms, habits, and thoughts
  • Burnout
  • How to communicate what we’re excited about to the professors
  • Time Management (about it)
  • Fame (on a limited scale)
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