Spring 1997

The Class of Aught-Aught

The arrival this fall of the Class of 2000, the last class to receive their diplomas in the 20th century, provided an opportunity to think about the brave new world that lies ahead in the new millennium. But it is also a good excuse to look back at just how much things have changed at WPI in the past 100 years.

By Joe Parker '93

When the members of the Class of '00 entered Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall of '96 they found a school in the midst of a dramatic transformation. With the economy in a downturn, a drop in overall enrollment, and a deficit in the Institute's treasury, it had become obvious to the administration and the trustees that tough decisions and sweeping changes would have to be made.

The president, in office less than a year, acted swiftly. In early '96, he implemented new programs - some extremely unpopular with the faculty - that changed the face of the school. Nearly half of the instructors didn't wait around to see how they would work out. Among those who left WPI in '96 were two men who had made an indelible impression upon the school.

The year was 1896 and the president making the tough choices was Thomas C. Mendenhall, a highly respected educator who had already served as president of Rose Polytechnic Institute (where, by coincidence, he'd succeeded WPI's first president, Charles O. Thompson) and chief of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Mendenhall stirred things up early in his term by questioning the role that the lucrative commercial enterprise maintained in the Washburn Shops played in the Institute's academic program.

The Shops had become an integral element in the philosophy of theory and practice that was at the core of WPI's academic program. Students put their classroom learning to work there making products for sale on the open market. But it was the business of the Shops that troubled Mendenhall: he worried that it was distracting the school from its primary mission of education. Furthermore, he was concerned that WPI had become, in essence, two distinct institutions: one, a college, and the other, a commercial manufacturing enterprise.

That January, he and the Board of Trustees made a decision that would set off a tremendous furor in the ranks of the faculty. They decided to sell off the Washburn Shops' hydraulic elevator business. The decision was not made lightly. The products of the Washburn Shops were well-known - especially the hydraulic elevators, which had been installed in every major city in the United States. And the sale of those products had earned the Institute nearly $1 million, not an insignificant amount of money at a time when WPI's budget was stretched thin.

The decision led to the resignations of Milton Higgins, the first superintendent of the Washburn Shops, and George Alden, his good friend and the Institute's first professor of mechanical engineering. Alden and Higgins purchased the elevator business and ran it for many years. They were also among the partners in the new Norton Emery Wheel Company, now Norton Company.

The Shops would continue to make and sell products commercially off and on until the 1950s, but Mendenhall had won an important victory and made an equally important statement about WPI's educational philosophy. In the process, he brought down the curtain on an era in the Institute's history just as the school - and the world - stood at the brink of a new century.

The School of '00

The rather somber looking members of the Class of 1900. They may have been thinking about their heavy academic workload, which the annual catalog suggested should consume "all the time of every student" (below).

In the late 1890s, WPI was not yet three decades old. It was, nevertheless, an institution in transition. As an Alumni Association pamphlet from 1895 bluntly stated, "The present must be regarded as a critical period in the history of the Institute." The decision to sell off the elevator business marked the beginning of a period of upheaval. Despite the Institute's many successes - both academic and commercial - there were those who believed that WPI was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, at the same time that Andrew Carnegie was looking at WPI as a model for the Carnegie Institute of Technology, enrollment was down 22 percent and the treasury was deep in debt. With so many faculty resignations, every academic department was in a state of disarray.

This was the state of the Institute as the Class of 1900 arrived on campus in the fall of 1896. The school was changing in other ways, as well. A four-year course of study had become standard, replacing the three-and-a-half-year course under which students had studied since classes began in 1868. The course load for the freshman year had been made uniform and new admissions requirements had been created. The ranks of the administration had been bolstered by the addition of a full-time registrar and a librarian.

One hundred years later, change is again in the air. Unlike the WPI of 1897, the university of today is on a firm fiscal footing, though the continually rising cost of financial aid has made balancing the budget a yearly struggle. While competition for undergraduates is, perhaps, more fierce than it has ever been, the university has maintained a strong competitive position among its peer institutions, due largely to the appeal of the innovative WPI Plan. In fact, enrollment consistently meets or exceeds the university's targets, WPI is blessed with a highly skilled faculty, and its project-based education is beginning to be seen as a model for change in technological higher education at the national level.

The Academics of '00

In 1865, as the Board of Trustees met to plan a course of study for the Institute, it declared that of all the subjects the school should offer, "the first in importance is mechanical engineering." By the end of the 19th century, mechanical engineering still reigned supreme in the school's curriculum, but some serious challengers were waiting in the wings. For example, with the growth of cities and the advent of major public works projects, civil engineering was emerging as an important professional field and the Institute responded by expanding its course offerings in that discipline.

"I've had a lot of really good professors. They seem to be just as eager to teach as I am to learn. If you want to learn, then you'll do a lot better than if you're here just to take a class." -Donna Lamaestra '00

But it was electrical engineering that was set to take the school - and the country - by storm. Thomas Edison had developed the first incandescent light bulb more than 15 years earlier and the electrification of the modern world had begun in earnest. Clearly, WPI needed to prepare young engineers to help shape the Electric Age. Even so, the birth of the Electrical Engineering Department did not come about without resistance, primarily from the mechanical engineers (see "An Electric Century," WPI Journal, Spring 1996).

As it did at many other schools, electrical engineering at WPI began as a program within the Physics Department. The new department was formally established in 1896, and was soon offering 11 courses. The number of electrical engineering majors that first year equaled the number of students choosing mechanical engineering, a clear indication of the interest students were showing in this exciting new field of technology.

A century later, electricity is firmly entrenched in every aspect of our world. Today, when students gaze into the future, the technology that captures their imaginations is the computer. Computers already dominate the worlds of science, technology, business and industry, and their potential to change our lives seems boundless. Computer-aided instruction, electronic mail, the World Wide Web and telecommunications technology are also beginning to change the way education is delivered at colleges and universities, including WPI.

"I think everything is going to become more computer-based," says Jonathan Tripp, a native of The Netherlands and a member of the Class of 2000, who says he has already encountered computer applications in his classes - even those in organic chemistry. "The other majors at WPI will hold their own, but with computer engineers and scientists, the numbers are going to explode."

In fact, interest in computer science and electrical and computer engineering has recently started to grow. According to Executive Director of Admissions Robert Voss, computer science and electrical and computer engineering are two of the top three majors for the Class of 2000 and are the top two choices among applicants for the Class of 2001. Even for students who choose other majors, computer literacy is becoming a prerequisite for success in today's high-tech world.

Ann Garvin, director of academic advising, says WPI students today seem to appreciate the importance of understanding computers. "To say you don't use a computer or don't know how to use a computer seems unacceptable among today's undergraduates," she says. "As soon as they enroll, they want their computer account, they want to be able to use the system - and they want their e-mail!"

The WPI of a century ago lived up to its "Polytechnic" middle name, offering majors in primarily technical disciplines. The general scientific major, available to students interested in becoming educators, was about as far from the standard technical curriculum as WPI ventured then. Today, engineering remains the major of choice for the majority of undergraduates, but the sciences, management and the liberal arts - including the humanities and such interdisciplinary fields as technical and professional communications and theater and technology - have seen their base of majors rise steadily over the past decade. In fact, nearly 40 percent of students are now pursuing nonengineering majors.

The Biology and Biotechnology Department has seen one of the most dramatic rises in popularity of any department at WPI. Enrollment in the department has increased more than fivefold since the early 1970s, when the program was founded as the Department of Life Sciences. The growth in demand for undergraduate courses and labs was one of the motivations for a recent $2 million renovation (supported by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation) of research labs and supporting spaces in Salisbury Laboratories, the department's home.

Biology and Biotechnology has proven to be especially attractive to female students; in fact, some 31 percent of all women undergraduates are majoring in biology, biotechnology or biochemistry (a major within the newly renamed Chemistry and Biochemistry Department). Notes Donna Lamaestra '00, a biotechnology major from Yuma, Az., "Classically, women aren't drawn to pure engineering. I know that when I was looking at colleges, I'd look at all the brochures they'd send me and right away I'd get a clear idea of whether I'd 'throw it in, or throw it out.' I got WPI's, and on the last page there was a blurb about the medical professions scholars program. That's the reason I applied to WPI."

The Students of '00

The experience of being part of the Class of 2000 is "really not that much different than it is for any other class. The difference is more symbollic than real." - Jason Sardell '00

Academics are not the only aspect of WPI that has changed dramatically over the past century. When the Class of 1900 matriculated, it consisted of 83 men, of whom 43 would still be on hand for graduation. The majority of the class came from Worcester County, while 11 came from other parts of Massachusetts, 12 from the other New England States, and 10 from outside New England. Four members of the Class of 1900 came from overseas, a number that was then considered extraordinary.

Like the Class of 1900, the Class of 2000 is rooted firmly in New England. Close to three-quarters of its 690 members hail from the six-state region (43 percent are from Massachusetts), but the resemblance between the two classes ends there. The class that arrived at WPI in the fall of 1996 was drawn from every region of the United States, and from a broad cross section of the globe. In all, 31 states and 23 other countries are represented.

And, of course, WPI is no longer an all-male institution. WPI's first president, Charles O. Thompson, left the door open to enrolling women as soon as the school had the resources to educate "all competent women who apply." But in fact, WPI would remain a single-sex school for a full century, enrolling its first two women undergraduates in 1968. Since then, the number of women on campus has increased steadily. This year, women make up 21 percent of the undergraduate student body; 22 percent of the members of the Class of 2000 are women.

A review of the yearbook for the Class of 1900 suggests that few if any of its members were Black, Hispanic or Native American. In fact, it has been only within the last decade or so that WPI has seen its enrollment of students from underrepresented minorities begin to grow. A variety of recruiting and retention programs, some supported by major corporations like United Technologies, General Electric, GTE, Lockheed-Martin and Xerox, have enabled the university to increase minority enrollment substantially. Today, Black, Hispanic and Native American students make up 5 percent of all undergraduates and 6 percent of the Class of 2000.

The Campus of '00

As the student body grew up, the campus - and the city it calls home - grew out. In 1896 WPI was a small cluster of four academic buildings on the outskirts of a small city. Travel was difficult, which might account for the small number of students from faraway places. Getting around was so arduous, in fact, that the 1896 annual catalog of WPI warned against frequent travel, even for local students:

If [the student's] home is far distant from the Institute, whether in Worcester or in any of the adjoining towns, it would greatly advance his interest to take a study room near at hand for five days in the week, for it is difficult to estimate the evil effect of the habit of daily riding to and from in the cars upon a student's enthusiasm.

WPI has since expanded to cover the better part of four city blocks in the heart of what is now New England's second largest city. Travel has become so easy, many students hop on planes (not yet invented in 1896) to travel home during school holidays or to head off to project centers at the far corners of the globe. In fact, jet travel, e-mail and video conferencing have made the notion of any place being "far distant from the Institute" seem out-of-date.

During the 20th century, the land to the west of West Street became the site of several residence halls, two gyms and four academic buildings, and the WPI campus became, in a sense, two campuses. By the time the Class of 2000 arrived, the university had, at last, joined its east and west halves into an elegant whole. The Class of 2000, in fact, is the first that will never have to get used to looking both ways before crossing West Street.

After decades of negotiations with the city, the university finally received the OK to close the street to traffic in 1995. It moved quickly to replace the asphalt of the street with the brick and granite of a landscaped pedestrian mall, complete with a fountain. The project has benefits in addition to enhancing student safety, Garvin says. "It makes students feel that they are part of a tradition that goes beyond their own four years here."

"It's a real improvement," Tripp says. "The campus has a great feeling now. What they've done with West Street is really nice - you feel that that block belongs to you. In the spring, when the grass is out and the trees are in bloom, it will be beautiful."

The Economics of '00

In the 100 years since the Class of 1900 enrolled, the cost of attending WPI has increased - more than a hundredfold. In 1896, full tuition - including lab fees - was $160. For the current academic year, the university is charging $17,860. Of course, the past century has seen a substantial increase in the cost of most commodities, and WPI's tuition remains at about the mid-point of the prices charged by its competitors.

The financial expectations of today's students also differ markedly from those of their counterparts of 100 years ago. An engineering education in 1900 virtually guaranteed wealth. Today, a degree from WPI offers a good prospect of a comfortable standard of living. But in today's economy, when downsizing, acquisitions and mergers, and global competition have made job security and lifetime employment things of the past, financial stability seems to be the most important motivation for undergraduates, Garvin says. "I don't think our students are necessarily looking to be wealthy. They're hoping to be secure and comfortable."

She adds that a small minority of students come to WPI motivated primarily by the promise of the large starting salaries people in technical professions can make. "When you graduate and you can make $40,000 or $50,000 - that's heady stuff for a 22-year-old," she notes. "But I say to some students, 'You're going to work for 50 years. You don't even like chemistry. Why are you in chemical engineering?'"

Interviews with members of the Class of 2000 would indicate that at least some students today are being guided by their hearts, rather than their wallets. Jason Sardell '00, for example, a graduate of the Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science at WPI, a state-supported high school for Central Massachusetts students, is completing a double major in physics and economics. "I was planning on majoring in engineering," he says. "Then I took some physics courses and I really liked them. I like math, and physics involves a lot of math, as does economics." Asked if he is expecting to make a lot of money, he replies, with a laugh, "In physics?"

The Work of '00

"We represent a fresh start - a new chance. But it is probably wrong to think that we are not going to make the same mistakes as those who came before us. However, we do offer a new and different kind of hope - the hope that we may do a better job." - Jonathan Tripp '00

Though much has changed in the past 100 years, certain things remain the same. For example, hard work is expected of students. In return, they receive an excellent education and a degree that is respected in the world of industry.

But while hard work has been a constant through the years, the Class of 1900 might well have had to put in a bit more effort than today's students. For each of the three courses they typically take during each of WPI's four academic terms, members of the Class of 2000 are expected to spend about 17 hours per week in class, in lab, or doing homework. Here is how the annual catalog described the expectations for undergraduates a century ago:

The course of study is planned in such a way that all the time of every student is demanded for study, recitation, drawing, and practice, excepting so much that may be taken up in the necessary duties of life....Special care should be exercised in regarding to evening entertainment since at least five evenings a week ought to be devoted to the preparation of lessons assigned in the different departments of instruction. Students are expected to devote at least two hours [per day] to the preparation of each lesson excepting those in drawing and manipulation.

The workload led one student to lament in the 1900 Aftermath, the student yearbook, "I wish there were eight days in the week, so that I could work seven days instead of six."

WPI's rigorous academic program teaches students to budget their time, Sardell says. "I've learned how not to procrastinate. If I have homework due in two days, I'll do half tonight." Says Rob Seneres '00, a mechanical engineering major from Providence, R.I., whose area of interest is aerospace engineering. "I spend about three hours a night per hour of class. I'll just find myself doing homework whenever I have free time."

WPI was built on the premise that education is not just about formulas, but about learning how to apply knowledge to real problems, as students will do after they graduate. WPI teaches students how to learn, something today's high schools don't always seem ready to do, notes Garvin, who says students today learn work and study habits after they reach WPI.

"I received NRs [No Record grades] in two out of three classes... it changed my approach toward things. I developed a more conservative manner, so I'm more conscientious about the decisions I'm making." -Rob Seneres '00

"Every year it seems students are less equipped and less prepared," she says. "Most students were able to get by in high school by just absorbing the material. The most common thing I hear from students who are having difficulty is that they never had to study in high school. We have very bright kids who weren't pushed and weren't challenged."

But for those who are able to adjust, the benefits of WPI's approach to education can be significant. Says Tripp, "Professors force you to get into the background of a topic. Of course, you don't have to, but then you'll wind up not getting anywhere in the class. You have to figure out how to get out the relevant bits - you learn what's important. If you work at it, you're going to do well, and that's great. That's a really motivating factor."

"There are many things you have to look up yourself," Lamaestra says. "You do your own research; that's something that you need to know how to do, because there's not always going to be someone telling you the answers. I've had a lot of really good professors. They seem to be just as eager to teach as I am eager to learn. If you want to learn, then you'll do a lot better than if you're here just to take a class."

The lessons learned aren't always academic ones, as Seneres discovered. He struggled during his first term, but he says it was an excellent learning experience. "I received NRs [No Record grades] in two out of three classes," he says. "I probably would not have failed my classes if I'd gone to another school. But anything that doesn't kill you makes you grow - it's a builder of character. If I didn't fail courses in A Term, I would have done so in B Term, because I would not have developed any time-management skills. That first term was a big turning point for me. It changed my approach toward things. I developed a more conservative manner, so I'm more conscientious about the decisions I'm making."

Learning how to learn is one of the basic tenets of the Plan. With its project-based approach, the Plan is the cornerstone of today's WPI. Along with the university's reputation for high-quality instruction, students are drawn to WPI because of the Plan, the project work it entails, and the work ethic it breeds. Lamaestra puts it simply: "I came here mostly for the hands-on experience. It was one of the few schools that offered a program in biotechnology, but it was the projects that really got my attention."

The Enthusiasm of '00

In general, WPI students are an enthusiastic lot, Garvin says. But because theirs will be the last class to graduate in the current millennium and the first to put their WPI degrees to work in the 21st century, the Class of 2000 seems to share especially high spirits. "They've gelled as a class earlier than other classes I've seen," Garvin says. "In some way, I think they feel that they share a special obligation."

For Seneres, that obligation is nothing short of leading the world into the next century. "It's like a changing of the guard," he explains. Sardell is more philosophical. "It's really not that much different for us than it is for any other class. The difference is more symbolic than real."

But even as they try to take things in stride, members of the class say they are aware that the world will be watching them. "We represent a fresh start - a new chance," Tripp says. "But it is probably wrong to think that we are not going to make the same mistakes as those who came before us. However, we do offer a new and different kind of hope - the hope that we may do a better job." Notes Lamaestra, "To be the Class of 2000 means that we'll be leading everybody into the next century. You know that you're going to be right there for the next century - right there in the front."

The expectations for the 43 men of the Class of 1900 were no less grand when they received their diplomas. The Reverend Daniel Merriman, pastor emeritus of Central Church, concluded his Baccalaureate sermon to the class with these words: "You are going forth at a most extraordinary epoch in the world's history, the first class in the 20th century. You must help decide the gravest possible issues. You must bear your part in political, economic, social and religious changes of vast significance. You shall see present much vaunted theory discredited; you shall see confident prophecies fail; you shall see present noisy clamor of tongues cease; you shall see much that boasts of itself as knowledge vanish away. But in it all I exhort you to follow with unremitting and patient devotion the more excellent way of unselfishness. For 'now abideth faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.'"

Parker, who received his bachelor of science degree in technical writing, is a technical writer for Iconics Inc. in Foxboro, Mass.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:51:28 EDT 1999