WPI Journal

October 1996

2020 Foresight

By Ruth Trask

What will WPI be like 25 years hence? Will it provide a higher quality of campus life for its students? Will it use modern technology to build "virtual worlds" to help students learn? Will it make sensitivity to the environment an integral part of its curriculum? Will it be a downsized, but better and better-known institution? Will it steer aspiring engineers toward a professional master's degree? Here are five very different visions of WPI's future.

Editor's note: Last year, the WPI community received a challenge from the committee planning a campus celebration of the 25th anniversary of the WPI Plan: in a scholarly essay, describe the state of the university 25 years into the future. Several individuals peered into their crystal balls and wrote brief abstracts about what they saw. The committee invited five of these authors to expand their visions into full-length papers, which were presented to the community in a panel discussion on April 23, 1996. The following article provides an overview of the invited papers.

Some 25 years ago, realizing that the time for change had come, some forward-looking sculptors chiseled the last vestiges of Victorian educational trappings from the WPI curriculum and molded it into the WPI Plan (see story, page 4). The Plan turned the curriculum upside down, and in the process, greatly enhanced the reputation and stature of the university.

Before they could create the Plan, the faculty Planning Committee had to take careful stock of where WPI and the world stood in the late 1960s and peer into the future to determine what kind of institution WPI should become to best meet the needs of students and society in the decades to come. Before crystallizing their ideas into the Plan, they drafted 12 quite different visions of WPI's future.

As the university celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Plan, it seemed an apt time to peer ahead, once again, to see what the next 25 years might bring. In five remarkable papers, the winners of an open competition held in conjunction with the campus observance of the Plan's silver anniversary offered quite diverse forecasts for the coming quarter century. Like the framers of the Plan, they have evaluated WPI's current strengths and weaknesses, and formulated plans to help the university continue to flourish in an increasingly turbulent world.

The authors are Diran Apelian, Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering, director of the Metal Processing Institute, and former provost and vice president for academic affairs; James K. Doyle, assistant professor of social science and policy studies; Colleen J. Fox '97, an electrical engineering major; Roger S. Gottlieb, professor of philosophy and Paris Fletcher Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and Arts; and John F. Zeugner, professor of history and director of WPI's Asian project programs.

In her paper, Colleen Fox says the university needs to shore up its learning environment so students today and 25 years from today can make the most of their WPI education. "The college community has always played an important role in a student's ability to learn," she says. "As a student and residential hall assistant, I have seen how a comfortable, learning-based environment can foster productive students who are satisfied with their lives academically and personally. I have also seen how the wrong environment, including overcrowded dorms and thoughtless neighbors, can lead to dissatisfaction."

Since community living is most highly focused in residence halls, the architecture of these buildings is of paramount importance, she notes. "A well-designed dormitory can add much to a student's academic and social growth," notes Fox, who says she believes that refurbished residence halls can attract more students, a larger percentage of whom will elect to live on campus. The result will be a tighter-knit, more family-like community.

"When prospective students tour our campus ... they immediately notice the absence of a social center. The lack of a center does not improve our image or help draw new students." Colleen Fox

But WPI needs more than a face-lift, she says. "It needs the campus center promised long ago in the WPI Plan and which is only now being funded. When prospective students tour our campus after visiting other colleges, they immediately notice the absence of a social center. The lack of a center does not improve our image or help draw new students."

Although students, faculty members and guests will eventually socialize in a beautiful new campus center, Fox suggests that a more immediate way for WPI to build a sense of community would be to bring back the Goat's Head Pub. "Years ago," she says, "the Pub was a popular place for faculty and students to unwind together while discovering the pleasures and excitement of good conversation."

Fox says WPI should not underestimate the educational value of the kinds of interactions faculty members and students could enjoy at a campus center or a pub. If nothing else, she says, students and their mentors would get to know and understand each other better. "It would be hard for prospective students to overlook that kind of unity."

James Doyle, in his paper, notes that WPI may be on the verge of losing its uniqueness in the technical education community, as other universities move to adopt changes not unlike those WPI pioneered 25 years ago. Even the Interactive Qualifying Project, perhaps the most innovative element of the WPI Plan, is being looked at as a model of what other technological universities should strive to accomplish in the new millennium.

As its competitors move to implement project-based curricula, Doyle says WPI must blaze a new trail to assure the continuation of its leadership role in higher education. That new trail, he says, might take the university to some "virtual worlds," a term Doyle uses to describe computer-simulated learning environments. To succeed in the 21st century, he says, WPI must provide students not only with the best technological education possible, but with the best in educational technology.

The idea of learning through virtual worlds borrows from the theory and technology of computerized simulations that are used today to train people to run such complex machines as nuclear power plants and jumbo jets. Simulators, he notes, enable operators to experience and learn from situations that may be too dangerous or costly to reproduce in real life.

"System dynamics software provides a universal language for representing systems in domains ranging from science to technology to social problems to economics to environmental science, making it particularly well-suited for WPI's interdisciplinary and interactive studies." James Doyle

Doyle says there are manifold advantages to learning through simulations. They include the ability to present students with controllable, easily completed experiments that can be reversed, if necessary, making it easier for students to learn from their mistakes. Virtual experiments can also be interrupted, eliminating the time pressure that can degrade real-life decision making. And virtual worlds can collect years of simulated experience that can be easily retrieved.

"System dynamics software provides a universal language for representing systems in domains ranging from science to technology to social problems to economics to environmental science, making it particularly well-suited for WPI's interdisciplinary and interactive studies," he says.

Doyle says virtual worlds have the power to significantly improve undergraduate education, which is still dominated by the passive classroom lecture. He says a better method of teaching lies in the combination of virtual world simulations with two emerging educational practices: cooperative learning and learner-directed learning. In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups to solve problems. In learner-directed learning, students share responsibility with the instructor for the pace and direction of the educational process. The use of computer simulations enhances both processes, he says.

If WPI does not take current and future environmental challenges seriously, it should not claim the right to represent itself as a legitimate site for the training and evaluation of young professionals, Roger Gottlieb writes in his paper. "How can WPI be worthy of flourishing if it does not recognize its moral responsibility to our civilization and our species and also integrate its programs into the industrial and governmental structures which are the ultimate sources of its support?" he asks.

Gottlieb says the world is in environmental peril. Among the crises it faces are the destruction of its rain forests, the shrinking of the ozone layer, the threat of global warming brought on by use of fossil fuels, the polluting of air, land and water by toxic wastes, and the decimating of animal species due to the elimination of their natural habitats. Also looming are the "dismal prospect" of engineered life forms and the "potentially catastrophic" creation of insufficiently tested organisms through genetic engineering.

Many of these environmental problems have come about, Gottlieb claims, because people tried to make the world "better." For example, he says, engineered miracle seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were introduced in Third World countries to vastly increase agricultural output. The result has been poisoned soil, destabilization of water usage, and the loss of crops. In short, when the engineers tried to fix things, they chose to dismiss the traditional practices of local peoples and turned instead to "expert scientific advice."

In the light of this scientific and moral dilemma, WPI must make some fundamental changes in its curriculum, Gottlieb notes. First, it should publicly acknowledge the severity of the environmental crisis. Second, it should provide its students a context in which they will be less likely to unemotionally skip over news stories about environmental problems, believing that such problems have easy, technological answers. Gottlieb says he tries to accomplish both objectives in his course titled "Philosophy and the Environment." Sometimes the results can be quite profound. Noted one of his students, "I'm not sure I can go on with what I'm supposed to do in this life. If I start to cry, I might never stop."

"How can WPI be worth of flourishing if it does not recognize its moral responsibility to our civilization and our species and also integrate its programs into the industrial and governmental structures which are the ultimate sources of its support?" Roger Gottlieb

If a WPI education is to measure up to the challenges of a world threatened by environmental destruction, students must be taught to think of engineering problems in their full complexity, Gottlieb says. Awareness of the moral consequences of technological developments -- as well as of their inevitable ties to forms of political and economic organizations -- must be considered essential for a professionally competent engineer, scientist or manager. "The abstract education that forgets the social conditions in which environmental problems arise is simply not adequate for the tasks before us," he concludes.

In industry, "downsizing" has become a frightening word for employees. "But if it's done right," John Zeugner says, "it can bring long-term benefits not only to industry, but to colleges seeking to redefine themselves in an ever-changing world."

Zeugner says WPI will very likely cease to exist in a society in which income distribution is increasingly skewed, with more and more wealth being controlled by fewer and fewer people, and where job security -- especially at the entry engineering level -- has become a thing of the past.

Acknowledging, however, that the celebration of the WPI Plan's 25th anniversary would not support a paper detailing the demise of the institution, Zeugner instead speculates that to survive WPI will have to steer away from its traditional role of educating students at the bachelor's level for entry-level jobs and redefine its mission to encompass a more exclusive set of functions. These might include an educational program tailored to graduate study in five particular fields -- new materials engineering; social analysis of safety; cognitive science and artificial intelligence; technology, management and entrepreneurship; and bio/chemical/medical engineering -- all within the dominant focus of ever increasing ecological concerns.

Before this grand design can be implemented, however, he says WPI will automatically undergo declining enrollments, in part due to the shrinking pool of students who come from families that can afford an education at a private university. After a year or two of this natural downsizing, WPI should step in and voluntarily and aggressively "downrightsize" the student body, Zeugner says. "By that time, downsizing by choice will seem proper, brilliant and necessary, and it will be happening anyway."

"By that time, downsizing by choice will seem proper, brilliant and necessary ... The angst downrightsizing will cause among faculty members will be alleviated somewhat by the possibility of Satellite Center 'pasturing' of faculty unwilling to take retirement." John Zeugner

Ultimately, "downrightsizing" should enhance the quality of incoming students and permit more generous forms of financial aid, he says. He envisions that WPI will make available to all students an expense-free fourth year through a revolving loan program that can be repaid after graduation at a low interest rate or waived entirely should a student qualify for entry into WPI's master's programs. These programs would be available to them after their third year at WPI because by then the university will have added required fifth and sixth terms each year. "Enrolling students would, therefore, have a powerful incentive to go on for their master's degree after personal expenditures for only three years of prior education," he says.

Despite the drop in enrollments and the initial worry by the faculty about decreased opportunities for tenure, Zeugner says he believes the college, given its recast graduate programs, would be able to survive the changes intact. "The angst downrightsizing will cause among faculty members will be alleviated somewhat by the possibility of Satellite Center 'pasturing' of faculty unwilling to take retirement," Zeugner says.

With appropriate downsizing, by the year 2020 WPI will have shrunk to a manageable undergraduate population of about 1,400, he predicts. All students will be going to school nearly full time, studying under the guidance of world-class scholars hired by the college, and looking forward to graduating with their master's degrees within four years.

In the next century, following thoughtful downsizing and upgrading of the curriculum, WPI will savor a reputation and stability and prominence well beyond anything it has ever known, Zeugner believes. "The time to start downrightsizing is not tomorrow, not next year, but today."

One way for WPI to compete and to expand its leadership role in engineering education in the future is to offer a professional master's degree program," notes Diran Apelian. "As we examine the professions, including engineering, law and medicine, we find that with the exception of engineering, all have a professional terminal degree." For most undergraduates interested in careers in engineering, the professional master's would supplant the bachelor of science as that terminal degree, Apelian says.

Since World War II, the U.S. has been transformed from a defense-oriented to a commercial/industrial economy, a transition viewed with concern by the members of one of WPI's industrial consortia, the Aluminum Casting Research Laboratory, Apelian says. The consensus of the aluminum casting industry, he notes, is that to keep in tune with a changing world, WPI's curriculum should include exposure to organizational behavior, finance and management, and global issues, and should provide students opportunities to engage in industrial internships.

"It is expected that our graduates will assume leadership posts in industry, so it is imperative that they have a knowledge of the workings of organizations and the world of commerce," Apelian says. "I am not suggesting that our engineering graduate students should also be M.B.A.s. However, rather than viewing these two disciplines as separate cultures, we should look at them as points along a continuum."

To bridge the gap that often exists between higher education and industry, Apelian proposes that WPI institute a five-year professional master's intended as a terminal degree, not necessarily as the first step toward a research-oriented Ph.D. Besides taking the basic courses in their discipline, students in this master's program would be required to take courses with a focus in processing or design, skills eagerly sought by industry. To gain depth as engineers, students would also be encouraged to take courses in departments beyond their home department.

"Our graduates will assume leadership posts in the industry, so it is important that they have a knowledge of the workings of organizations and the world of commerce." Diran Apelian

A major requirement of the professional master's degree would be a design project encompassing a full academic year. While tackling this complex, real-world project, students would take part in industrial clinics -- programs where high-level practitioners would pass on their knowledge to students and their faculty advisors.

Though he champions the professional master's as the terminal degree for engineers, Apelian says WPI should continue to offer its four-year accredited bachelor's degree programs in engineering for students who may want to pursue a Ph.D. or who plan to use their engineering degree as a stepping stone to other professions, for example law and medicine. He says the bachelor's curriculum should be revamped to allow time for exposure to subjects like management, manufacturing, and technology and society. "Such a B.S. degree has the possibility of developing into the liberal arts degree of the 21st century," Apelian says.

Apelian predicts that as the professional master's becomes more widely adopted, and as acceptance grows for the notion that entry to the professional practice of engineering begins with the receipt of a master's degree, engineering will enjoy increased prestige in the eyes of the public. And anything that enhances the engineering profession bodes well for the future of WPI, he says.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:50:08 EDT 1999