What is an IQP?

The most distinctive feature of WPI’s project-based education (cf Tryggvason & Apelian, 2012) is the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) which requires students to address a problem that lies at the intersection of science or technology with social issues and human needs (WPI, 1995). At first blush, addressing a problem doesn’t sound very different than what you do in most of your classes. After all, you are given problems to solve in most of your classes. However, the IQP is different, firstly because you have to figure out not just how to solve the problem, but what the problem is.

You probably have a great deal of experience in solving problems, but very little in setting problems. To make matters more difficult, your project sponsors will not tell you what the problem is. They may not know what the problem is and they may not even agree with each other what the problem is. Often IQP sponsors provide a description of a project with certain objectives and that description implies a particular underlying problem. But the sponsors and center director may be wrong about what the problem is. To make matters worse, to be an IQP the problem has to include social and human needs. Once we enter the social world, issues become complex, meanings are contested, and motivations are over-determined. There is seldom, if ever, a single correct answer. Nonetheless, we manage to act in the world and move ahead every day. The conceptual muddiness of social issues does not prevent us from acting.

Working with historically disadvantaged communities such as informal settlements adds complexity to the IQP process. To put it simply the target moves. The nature of the problem, even as we are trying to discover it, changes. For various reasons we may not even want to think in terms of problems, but instead think in terms of opportunities or assets. This raises the question then, if we don’t think in terms of problems or if the problem is constantly changing, how do go about doing a project that addresses a problem that lies at the intersection of science or technology with social issues and human needs?