Former faculty win prestigious engineering award for education innovation

Olin College of Engineering’s three founding academic leaders, Richard Miller, David Kerns and Sherra Kerns, received one of engineering’s highest honors – the Bernard M. Gordon Prize. The $500,000 prize is awarded by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to recognize innovation in engineering and technological education.

“This team of educational innovators has had a profound impact on society by improving the way we educate the next generation of engineers,” said NAE President Charles M. Vest. “Olin serves as an exemplar for the rest of the engineering world and a collaborative agent for change.”

L-R; Sherra Kerns, Richard Miller and David Kerns

Armed with one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education, the F. W. Olin Foundation recruited Richard Miller as Olin’s first employee in 1999. Miller recruited the founding academic leadership team later that year, including David Kerns and Sherra Kerns from the School of Engineering at Vanderbilt University (1987-99). Together, they developed a vision for an engaging approach to teaching engineering and a new culture of learning that is intensely student centered.

Perhaps the most important contribution the Gordon prize recipients made was the creation of a profoundly inclusive and collaborative process of experimentation and decision-making involving students in every aspect of the invention of the institution.  This is illustrated by the decision in 2001 to recruit 30 young students to spend a year as “partners” in residence with the faculty in conducting many experiments together before establishing the first curriculum.

“As entrepreneurs, we learn to listen to our customers. Olin’s innovative approach was co-created by enterprising faculty, inspired students, and a dedicated staff, as well as collecting and integrating innovative approaches from more than 30 other institutions worldwide,” said David Kerns, current faculty at Olin and founding provost and chief academic officer of the college from 1999 to 2007.

With the extensive help of a collaborative team of faculty and students, and the guidance of the late Michael Moody, a novel academic program emerged.  Some of the features include a nearly gender-balanced community, a strong focus on design process throughout all four years, extensive use of team projects, a requirement that students repeatedly “stand and deliver” to the entire community at the end of every semester, an experiential requirement in business and entrepreneurship, a capstone requirement outside of engineering, and a year-long corporate-sponsored design project in which corporations pay $50,000 per project.

“Engineering is a fundamentally creative endeavor and the more perspectives that contribute to a solution, the better the solution. From the beginning, we sought to design programs attractive to all people. Today, we graduate a higher percentage of women than any other co-ed engineering program in the country,” said Sherra Kerns, current faculty and founding VP of Innovation and Research.

Prior to joining Olin, David Kerns served at the School of Engineering in 1987 as professor and chair of electrical engineering. Kerns was named Orrin Henry Ingram Distinguished Professor of Engineering Management in 1990.  He served as Associate Dean for Administration from 1993 to 1995 and from 1995 to 1996 he was acting dean of the school. In addition, he was a professor of electrical engineering from 1996 to 1999.

At Vanderbilt, Sherra Kerns joined the engineering faculty as professor of electrical engineering in 1987. She served as chair of the electrical engineering department from 1993 to 1998.