Founded in 1865, WPI has been a pioneer in project-based education since 1970 when, building upon its core philosophy of balancing theory and practice in education, the university adopted a revolutionary new undergraduate program known as the WPI Plan. The new approach replaced the traditional, rigidly prescribed engineering curriculum with a flexible and academically challenging program aimed at helping students learn how to learn by synthesizing classroom experience in projects that solve real-world problems.
Today, WPI’s approach prepares students by helping them learn how to identify, investigate, and report on potential approaches and solutions to open-ended problems. All students must complete two significant research projects: one is a high-level design or research experience conducted within their major. It challenges them to solve problems that would be typically encountered in their professional discipline. The other project presents an issue at the intersection of science, technology, and culture, and emphasizes the need to learn about how technology affects societal values and structures. It calls for small teams of students to work under the guidance of faculty members from all disciplines to conduct research, using social science methods, directed at a specific problem or need. In addition, all WPI students achieve some depth through the integrated Humanities & Arts Requirement, which allows them to become immersed in art, theatre, music, and other forms of creative expression through a self-selected series of courses. This approach allows students to explore themes of complexity, diversity, and the richness of human experience by examining art/architecture, history, languages, literature, philosophy, or religion – the goal being to build well-rounded, globally aware graduates with superior analytical thinking skills and a handle on the ambiguous problems that will characterize their future careers.
In 1974, WPI launched a global component to its project-based curriculum and now sends approximately 70 percent of its students to more than 45 project centers around the world, which are overseen by the university’s Global Projects Program. At these centers, students work in teams to focus on issues such as energy, food, health, and urban sustainability. The Global Projects Program offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in tackling real problems, develop an understanding of other cultures, and see how their lives and work can make a real impact.
Building on the university’s legacy for innovation, WPI launched the Great Problems Seminar in 2007. Through this program, first-year students have the option to enroll in a two-course introduction to university-level research and project work that focuses on important problems facing the world. These courses are tied to current events, societal problems, and human needs; they also provide students with the skills they will need to succeed as they go forward with WPI’s project-based curriculum.
Now, more than four decades after the launch of the WPI Plan, the university’s approach to education remains distinctive within higher education. It has proven invaluable to alumni and has become a model for other colleges and universities. A recent UMass Donahue Institute study of WPI alumni revealed that project-based learning has significantly enhanced their professional abilities and advancement, their interpersonal and communications skills, and their world views. What’s more, the university has become a valued source for academics and administrators from around the world through the Institute on Project-based Learning, an intensive program designed to help other colleges and universities learn to implement best practices in project-based education on their own campuses. This program is expected to grow significantly, and will use proceeds from this award for its further development.