Fifty years ago this spring, the WPI faculty approved the WPI Plan, a radically new, project-based approach to undergraduate education. The Plan has evolved and changed, but it has also endured and, in important ways, grown stronger. Today, the Plan stands as a potent model for academic innovation, one that could help guide further change at WPI and throughout higher education.
In 1965 WPI celebrated its centennial with pageantry and an oversubscribed fundraising campaign. With the nation enjoying a surging economy and a technological explosion, it should have been a time of optimism for the Institute.
But Harry Storke was worried. The retired three-star Army general was close to stepping down as WPI’s 10th president. He’d hoped to leave the Institute on firm ground, but that would be a challenge. It was facing budget deficits and increased competition from lower-cost state schools. And tuition increases aimed at righting the ship and meeting a growing demand for financial aid had led to enrollment shortfalls.
What’s more, Storke knew that with its typically rigid engineering curriculum, WPI offered little to distinguish it from its competitors or, in his mind, justify its place in the private sector. Finding little enthusiasm among its academic leadership for challenging the status quo, he turned to some of the Institute’s younger and newer faculty members, who he knew shared his interest in reconsidering WPI’s approach to academics.
Starting in late 1968, two faculty planning committees—the first appointed by the president, the second elected by the faculty—undertook a systematic exploration of options for WPI’s future. They began by agreeing that no idea, no matter how drastic a change it would have represented, was out of bounds.
Stephen Weininger, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry, was a young assistant professor when he was tapped to join the initial committee. He remembers the idea he brought to the table.
Exhilaration and Exhaustion
In 1964, armed with my newly minted PhD in organic chemistry, I accepted a junior instructorship at the University of Durham in northeast England, hoping to discover how chemistry was taught elsewhere. What I learned profoundly shaped my educational philosophy. During a three-year undergraduate program, Durham students had just two exams: one after the first year, one after the third. Of course there were other requirements, but, overall, students bore a great deal of the responsibility for their education.
What I found at WPI in 1965 was exactly the opposite. Typical of most American colleges, WPI laid out a student’s entire four years. The system was rigid and paternal. Those who lagged were constantly prodded; those who could have worked independently were confined. I found the approach troubling and I considered leaving. I really enjoyed teaching the students, though, and I found simpatico colleagues with whom to discuss curricular reform. Then, in the fall of 1968, I found myself the junior member of the President’s Planning Group.
For the remainder of that academic year I toggled between exhilaration and exhaustion. As we grappled with President Storke’s charge, we realized we had an opportunity to reconsider WPI’s entire academic goal and structure. On a cold, snowy December evening we trudged across Park Avenue to the president’s house to get his consent, which he gave after barely a minute’s consideration.
The group set itself an ambitious agenda and stuck to it. Coming to meetings with one’s “homework” in hand was mandatory. Discussions were intense, disagreements plentiful, civility obligatory. And there was just enough horsing around to relieve the tension. We delivered our first report in March 1969; our second, delivered that June, listed five possible objectives for WPI and the responses elicited from a cross-section of stakeholders.
I declined nomination for the elected committee for personal reasons (our second child had just arrived) and professional ones (I had signed a book contract). Participating in the planning process was a peak experience in my academic career, and I retain a continuing sense of pride and satisfaction with its legacy.
In its final two reports the committee zeroed in on a new curriculum that offered a dramatic contrast to WPI’s traditional way of teaching. Built around project work, the new curriculum would require throwing out much of the previous academic infrastructure (the calendar, the grading system, the major degree requirements) and starting over.
The faculty was asked to make that leap of faith at the May 12, 1970, faculty meeting, when the WPI Plan was put to a vote. Faculty received paper ballots and had until May 28 to hand them in. In the final tally, announced on May 29, the program passed—barely—by just over the required two-thirds majority.
Arthur Heinricher is WPI’s dean of undergraduate studies, a post first held by William R. Grogan, an electrical engineering professor who was a member of the elected faculty planning committee. Heinricher recalls that Grogan, who led the 15-year process of implementing the Plan, had a keen understanding of what made the program different.
Experts in Action
One of the guiding principles of the WPI Plan—one that has kept it alive and evolving to this day—is that education is not separate from life. This is what Grogan knew.
In his introduction to an external review of the Plan in the early 1970s, he contrasted its guiding principles with what still are the defining characteristics of many academic programs.
Traditional education focuses on long, narrow corridors of knowledge. But, Grogan wrote, professional life demands the integration of disciplinary knowledge.
Traditional education values individual student work, evaluating individual performance and rewarding individual accomplishment. But almost all work in professional life requires teamwork and skill in navigating the challenges and rewards of working with people from different academic backgrounds, different communities, and diverse cultures.
And traditional education provides a roadmap of requirements, leaving students little or no choice in setting direction or defining personal goals. But right out of the gate, graduates will face the challenge of choosing a direction for their career and setting their own goals.
In short, most programs do a good job imparting theory, but fall short on preparing students for the practice of everyday life. The faculty members who designed the Plan were not looking for a better way to teach content. Project work can improve or deepen student learning in the disciplines, but that was not why the Plan’s designers placed projects at its core. Their goal was to align academic expectations with what life demands. They built an academic program that focused not just on gaining knowledge, but on what students could do with that knowledge.
Grogan’s observations are almost 50 years old, but they’re still relevant today. Higher education is facing significant challenges and there are renewed calls for colleges and universities to adapt to the changing needs of our world and our graduates. One author called on faculty to set aside their complete focus on disciplinary expertise by becoming “experts in action.”
The Plan was built to develop graduates who are experts in action. Perhaps it’s time for all of us in higher education to ask our students to do what we want our graduates to become.
The Plan is a sterling example of innovation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. But the faculty members who crafted it believed strongly that non-STEM knowledge, particularly breadth and depth in the humanities and arts, was vital for success in work and life, regardless of one’s field of study.
“Even the best technical solution works only if the clients fully accept and use the results,” says Lance Schachterle, professor of literature, who was one of four fresh PhDs recruited to teach in the humanities program in the fall of 1970. “The humanities and arts help students learn to address the cultural and humanistic issues and constraints necessary to design effective and enduring solutions, and to communicate them well.”
As part of the Plan, they created a humanities program (“and arts” was added to the program’s name later) that offers students a rich set of study options in the human domains of cultural, ethical, historical, and esthetic experiences. They also established a humanities and arts requirement (known initially as the Sufficiency), which is essentially a six-course minor in an area of the student’s choice, with some breadth and depth requirements.
Schachterle vividly recalls how that approach differed from the way WPI previously approached the humanities.
A Broader Base of Skills
The Plan was implemented in stages over two years, with some students following WPI’s traditional curriculum during that period. As is still standard practice at many technological universities, that curriculum included required humanities courses.
I taught a required English sequence several times. I felt that I had accomplished something if at the end most students could analyze the difference between an Italian and an English sonnet, even though I knew they would not carry that skill far into future studies.
The fully implemented Plan abolished all such required courses (students knew they needed some mastery of preliminaries before getting much out of more advanced courses).
When humanities colleagues at other schools ask me what’s it like to teach at WPI, I always start with the great merits of allowing students to select the area of the humanities or arts they like best. When they ask why we have no required writing courses, I remind them of what most already know: those requirements rarely lead students to become good writers.
Yes, students at WPI can avoid humanities and arts courses with heavy writing requirements, but their required major projects contain their own high expectations for written and oral communications—written reports and, often, presentations—and on topics into which they invest great personal energy.
WPI’s humanities and arts requirement has been refined over the decades, as have our focus areas, which now include courses and project work in depth in art history (including architecture and digital studies), English (including theater and writing), history, music (including digital studies), philosophy, and religion.
We also prepare students well for WPI’s expanded focus on a globalized education, with opportunities to pursue language and culture studies in Arabic, Chinese, English for international students, German, and Spanish, and an option in international and global studies. Humanities faculty members also frequently advise teams at off-campus project centers, lending their expertise to complement their STEM partners.
Along with the Plan’s other requirements, the humanities and arts requirement provides the broad base of skills necessary to complement STEM expertise and prepare our graduates as effective and much sought-after problem solvers throughout the globe.
From the beginning, the Plan has required students to complete two major projects. The faculty members who developed the program defined two project types: what became known as the Major Qualifying Project (MQP), a design or research experience in the student’s major field, and what is now called the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), an interdisciplinary exploration at the intersection of science and technology and societal needs and concerns. The IQP first became a requirement for students graduating in 1981, more than 10 years after the Plan was approved (until then, students were permitted to complete two MQPs).
The IQP has rightly been called the most distinctive element of the Plan. Since 2000, as a result of changes in accreditation requirements, virtually all engineering students in the United States now complete something like an MQP, but the IQP is unique to WPI.
Richard Vaz ’79, ’84 (MS), ’87 PhD, professor of interdisciplinary and global studies and co-director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning, says the IQP has undergone an “evolutionary adaptation” that has helped it mature into the university’s signature experience. Its evolution was tied to the rise of WPI’s Global Projects Program, which Vaz led for many years as dean of the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division.
“What started as an investigation into questions of science and technology policy has, for most students, become a research-based immersion at one of more than 50 sites around the globe,” he notes.
The Soul of the Plan
I’m told that WPI’s first residential project center, launched in 1974 in Washington, D.C., was motivated, in part, by desperation; faculty were worried about running out of ideas for IQPs. At first, off-campus activity grew slowly, driven by a handful of enthusiastic faculty members. By the late 1980s, there were about a half-dozen project centers, mostly in the United States and Europe; there were about a dozen by the mid-’90s, with about a quarter of WPI students participating.
The benefits of off-campus projects were by then becoming clear: students were highly motivated to tackle authentic problems for local organizations. Evidence of the superior quality of off-campus IQPs, in terms of both results and learning, became impossible to ignore. Away from campus distractions for seven weeks, students and faculty could immerse themselves in new environments that shaped their solutions and broadened their world views.
In the late 1990s, the Global Ambassadors, students who’d recently returned from off-campus IQPs, spread across campus to tell their stories of accomplishment, adventure, and personal growth. They went into classrooms and residence halls; they met with freshman groups and clubs. The results were stunning: in one year, applications for off-campus IQPs doubled. As Bill Grogan once said about a key moment in the development of the Plan, the olive was out of the bottle’s neck.
Last fall, over 95 percent of the sophomore class—about 1,100 students—applied to do off-campus IQPs in 2020, facilitated in no small part by the Global Projects for All scholarship that each received upon matriculation.
These students will go to such places as Albania, Iceland, Japan, and Paraguay to tackle local problems under faculty guidance. They’ll be out of their element, navigating new surroundings and cultures. They’ll struggle with new ideas. They’ll develop such skills as communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. And they’ll come back to campus, we hope, stronger and wiser.
Having students deeply engage with problems at the intersection of science, technology, society, and human need was a radical idea in 1970, and it’s still pretty radical today. Adopting a place-based format for the IQP, where students seek locally appropriate solutions to messy problems around the globe, has been transformational—for students and for WPI. If the MQP is the head of the WPI Plan, and the humanities and arts requirement is its heart, the off-campus IQP is its soul.
The WPI Plan has stood the test of time, remaining true to its founders’ vision over the course of half a century. But it has hardly been static. In fact, the program that shook WPI to its roots in 1970 has undergone some important shifts along the way. Some facets evolved: the grading system, for example, became a bit more traditional. Some were discarded: most significantly, the Competency Exam, the ultimate pass-fail (more accurately, graduate/not graduate exam that was administered until the mid-1980s. Some were added (including the Great Problems Seminar, which brought project-based learning to the first year).
The changes that have transformed the Plan have led some to ask just what the WPI Plan really is. What makes the Plan the Plan?
“To me, the Plan is more a philosophy than a curriculum,” says Kristin Wobbe, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and co-director of the Center for Project-Based learning. “And that philosophy, more than most approaches to formal education, honors the students—their ability to decide, know, and learn outside the confines of courses and requirements.” Wobbe played a central role in launching the Great Problems Seminar, has taught in the program since its inception, and directed it for many years as associate dean of undergraduate studies
The Plan Flexes
The introduction of the Great Problems Seminar was a significant testament to the Plan’s philosophy. Students told us their first-year experience did not challenge them; it was too much like high school. They desired earlier opportunities to engage in the most challenging and exciting elements of the WPI education; they wanted projects.
There were lots of models of first-year programs out there to emulate, but our faculty took a distinctively WPI approach to improving our first-year opportunities. At an institution that values the abilities of students to work in teams to solve significant problems that cross disciplinary boundaries, it wasn’t such a stretch to arrive at team-taught courses that ask student teams to engage with one of the world’s big problems and design potential solutions that would improve the situation for a given population.
The Plan was the very DNA of this idea. And it works.
Faculty and students alike have grown and developed through participation in the Great Problems Seminar. Team teaching breaks down barriers between disciplines and allows for new creativity, interdisciplinary partnerships, and more fun in the classroom.
Students in their first year learn that they are capable of making a difference in the world; that they are more than up to the challenge of working in teams on complex problems. They have fed the hungry, provided water to the thirsty, created lasting change on campus—and learned.
They have developed skills in working equitably on teams and communicating in oral, visual, and written forms. They’ve learned that finding good solutions requires a lot of listening, that frequently optimum and ideal are not the same, and that diversity leads to better ideas.
The gift of confidence is a wonderful thing to give our first-year students.
The Plan flexed in 2007 to include the Great Problems Seminar, and in so doing, it got stronger.
— Kristin Wobbe
Just as meaningful—and challenging—as defining the true nature and meaning of the Plan is identifying the source of its longevity. As she thinks about the Plan’s history and its possible future, that question looms large for Laurie Leshin, WPI’s 16th president. Not unlike Harry Storke more than 50 years ago, Leshin leads a university seeking to find its way and make its continuing mark in a changing world.
For Leshin, the Plan’s enduring value stems from “two particular outcomes of the program—one for its graduates and one for the university, itself—outcomes that, to me, explain why the Plan has proven to be such a successful educational innovation and why it offers important lessons for other educational institutions.”
A Powerful and Contagious Philosophy
We learned about the magnitude of the first outcome in 2012 when we surveyed more than 2,500 Plan graduates from the classes of 1974 through 2011. We asked them how the program had affected them, professionally and personally. They told us how their WPI experience made them feel better prepared for work and cemented their personal values, their character, and their understanding of other cultures. One result was particularly striking: about 90 percent said the Plan made them take responsibility for their own learning.
I talk about this outcome with other college presidents, and they are always astounded. Because if there’s one thing we all want to instill in our students it’s the knowledge that they can and must take charge of their own learning journey, and be prepared to keep learning throughout their lives. It’s becoming clearer all the time that a four-year college education is not enough. In any career, professionals will constantly encounter challenges for which their education did not prepare them. Jobs today are about working and learning, working and learning.
How do our students acquire this drive for lifelong learning? Through the Plan’s focus on open-ended problem solving, tackling problems in real-world situations, and working in teams alongside people with diverse backgrounds. All of those experiences come together to enable learning as a
habit of the mind.
The other outcome of the Plan that stands out to me is how it has infected the entire WPI curriculum with the spirit of project-based learning. The framers of the Plan centered the curriculum on the major projects—the MQP and the IQP—because they knew students would need to have hands-on project experiences that would move them closer to the real world.
But in the years since the Plan was implemented, as the faculty members have observed the benefits of project work (especially how open-ended problem solving in teams drills home all the critical skills students gain from their WPI education), they have brought project work into their courses. Today, close to three quarters of our classes are project-based or have a project component. I don’t think that is something we could have foreseen 50 years ago.
Through our Center for Project-Based Learning (see box, below), WPI has been sharing its “secret sauce” with other colleges and universities (more than 130 so far) through a summer institute, on-site consulting, and several other programs. As we do so, I think it is important to share this lesson: that project-based learning is a powerful and contagious philosophy.
And it’s OK to start small. Chances are it will spread through the curriculum to transform teaching and learning. Fifty years on, that may be the Plan’s most important takeaway.
— Laurie Leshin
Higher Education’s Johnny Appleseeds
At the heart of WPI’s time-tested curriculum, the WPI Plan, is a simple notion: that education is more powerful, and learning more durable, when students put knowledge into practice through project work. Established in 2016, WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning is dedicated to sharing what the Institute has learned about this effective approach to teaching and learning and helping other colleges and universities implement project-based learning on their campuses. Like academic Johnny Appleseeds, the center’s faculty spread the wisdom gained from hard-won experience in hopes that students around the nation and the globe can benefit from what has grown from the seeds of innovation planted at WPI five decades ago. Learn more: wp.wpi.edu/projectbasedlearning.
The WPI Plan was born in a time of upheaval. As the 1960s drew to a close, Americans worried about a growing environmental crisis, ongoing wars and global conflicts, poverty and income inequality, and battles over racism, sexism, and human rights. Fifty years later, those issues remain, although they loom larger now, due to our increasingly interconnected and shrinking globe, which can turn local problems into global problems and vice versa.
Furthermore, 50 years since the launch of the WPI Plan, higher education institutions are once again facing questions of access, cost, fairness, and value. As they prepare their graduates for the future of work, they find that they must build a compelling case for the need for and worth of their programs. Hence, within this context, WPI’s decision to launch The Global School represents a timely and important next step in the preparation of globally engaged STEM leaders who have the skills and perspectives needed to address complex local and global problems.
The Global School will build on WPI’s platform, which President Leshin has called “a true global polytechnic.” Like the Plan, The Global School was initially envisioned by a faculty committee: the Global Impact Division Implementation Advisory Group. The committee’s vision was further refined by WPI faculty and The Global School Implementation Committee in a process that involved extensive inputs from the faculty, staff, administration, and trustees. WPI’s new provost, Winston Soboyejo, says he believes these inputs produced a vision for The Global School that we could ignite a new revolution in globally engaged higher education here at WPI over the next few years.
Spreading the Spirit of Global Engagement
Like the WPI Plan, itself, The Global School is a unique product of WPI’s heritage of applied, purpose-driven education and research and further evidence of the university’s proven role as a pacesetter in higher education. In many ways, the new school represents an extension of WPI’s pioneering contributions to undergraduate education and project-based learning, as well as an effort to translate those successes into our graduate and interdisciplinary research programs.
The school will begin by integrating and enhancing the many academic programs at WPI that already have a global focus. Most significantly, it will build upon the infrastructure of the Global Projects Program, particularly its network of more than 50 residential undergraduate project centers that span six continents. This will be done by creating a global network of hubs to support learning, research, and project work at all levels.
The Global School will also draw upon the extensive knowledge and global insight represented by existing programs that will become part of The Global School (including the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division, the Great Problems Seminar, the Global Impact Lab, and the Office of Global Partnerships). It will also capitalize on the faculty’s expertise in such areas as China, Latin America, Africa, and Western Europe, as it helps students make more intentional connections across global majors and minors, seminars, courses, and projects.
As a full-fledged school, The Global School will have its own faculty and programs. It will also forge strong connections and collaborations with WPI’s other schools (Arts and Sciences, Business, and Engineering) and its other programs with expertise critical to The Global School’s mission, including the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program, the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, and the Center for Project-Based Learning. These ties will be important over time as the school develops new academic programs in global public health; science, technology, and policy; and climate change adaptation.
In large measure, what will distinguish WPI’s Global School from programs and schools with similar missions at other universities is that it will not simply engage faculty and students with global issues and policy discussions, it will enable them to truly connect with the world, itself—to understand and collaborate with its citizens, and to directly tackle the most pressing global challenges.
This may seem like a small distinction, but I truly believe it will make all the difference in the world. Decades ago, WPI pioneered the concept of global project-based education and demonstrated the remarkable transformation that students can experience when they move out into the world to see its human and technological needs firsthand. That spirit of global engagement and problem solving will infuse The Global School, creating an entirely new kind of academic enterprise.
Will The Global School answer the questions now swirling around American higher education? Will it become a powerful engine for global problem solving? Time will tell.
But if there’s one thing we can learn from the history of the WPI Plan, it’s that a powerful idea is like a seed. If, through careful thought and execution, that idea proves to be exquisitely tuned to its time and to the needs of students and the world they will inhabit, it can grow and strengthen and flower in remarkable ways.
— Winston Soboyejo
A WPI Plan Reading List
If the WPI Journal’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the WPI Plan has you yearning to learn more about this groundbreaking educational program, here are some suggestions for further reading.
Coverage of the Plan’s Semicentennial
WPI has established a site, Fifty Years of the WPI Plan, where you can read a continually updated set of stories about the Plan. At press time, topics ranged from the tale of Intersession, a discontinued element of the original Plan, to the history of the first off-campus residential project center, in Washington, D.C. Here you will also find a calendar of events tied to the Plan’s anniversary and links to resources related to the Plan’s history, including the four Future of Two Towers reports issued by the faculty planning group.
How the Plan Works and How it Benefits Students
The WPI Plan page on WPI’s undergraduate admissions website provides a quick and informative review of the basic components of this flexible, project-based curriculum and the unique student journeys it makes possible.
The History of the Plan
Here are a few resources for those who’d like to learn more about the origins and evolution of the WPI.
The WPI Journal reported on the Plan’s remarkable birth and the challenges and changes it experienced during its first 25 years in a two-part series: A Miracle at Worcester and The Best Laid Plans.
The story of the Plan is the primary thread that runs through True to Plan, a heavily illustrated book by John Landry and Jeffrey Cruikshank, which picks up the Institute’s story in 1965, where Mildred Tymeson’s centennial history, Two Towers, left off, and takes it through WPI’s sesquicentennial year, 2015.
The Presiding Genius of the Place by Allison Chisolm is the biography of William R. Grogan ‘46, a member of the faculty planning group that framed the Plan and the individual who, as the Institute’s first dean of undergraduate studies, oversaw its implementation. The book covers many aspects of Grogan’s life, as noted in its subtitle, “How Bill Grogan Transformed Lives, Organizations, and Higher Education.”
Copies of both books can be purchased at the WPI bookstore or by contacting WPI’s Marketing Communications Office at 508-831-5305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Impact and Influence of Project-Based Learning
Anecdotally, thousands of Plan graduates have testified over the years to the positive effects the program has had on their careers and lives. In 2012, the UMass Donahue Institute conducted a study that, for the first time, comprehensively quantified that impact. The institute surveyed 2,526 WPI alumni from the classes of 1974 through 2011 and conducted intensive interviews with a subset of that group.
As WPI faculty presenters reported at 2013 annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, alumni from across the generations reported a high level of impact on their professional abilities, interpersonal and communication skills, professional advancement, worldview, and personal fulfillment, with women reporting even greater impacts than did men.
The Donahue survey and WPI’s 50 years of experience with the WPI Plan demonstrated the power of project-based learning. The university is now dedicated to sharing that power with other colleges and universities—in the United States and around the globe—through the Center for Project-Based Learning. The center offers workshops, on-site consulting, and a highly acclaimed summer institute.
The National Academy of Engineering recognized WPI’s leadership in project-based learning within a STEM education by presenting four faculty members closely associated with the WPI Plan’s success with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education. The prize included a $500,000 award, half of which went to the university to support of the continued development, refinement, and dissemination of the Plan.
What’s Next in Educational Innovation at WPI
Earlier this year, WPI announced the establishment of The Global School, the university’s fourth academic school, and the launch of a search for the new school’s inaugural dean. While its vision, including its plans for graduate programs and its focus on global research and education at all levels, extends well beyond the realm of undergraduate project-based learning,
The Global School builds on the Plan’s half-century of educational innovation and its demonstrated success in preparing well-rounded STEM professionals, as well as the university’s unmatched experience in global project-based education.