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Reflecting on 35 Years of The Plan

By William R. Grogan

In 1967, 10 years after Russia launched Sputnik into space, a storm was brewing at WPI. At a faculty meeting, the late Bill Shipman, chemical engineering professor, suggested a movement for the university to study its very nature and institutional purpose. And so began a remarkable series of meetings, debates, and heated interactions in which the WPI community, led by a group of visionaries, created a revolutionary new curriculum, the WPI Plan.

Certainly, everyone didn’t agree with the tenets of the Plan; but no one can argue that it has provided a foundation from which the university continues to evaluate and improve its curriculum. On the 35th anniversary of implementing the Plan, Transformations asked Bill Grogan ’46, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and dean emeritus of undergraduate studies, to reflect on the past four decades.

On the afternoon of May 10, 1970, after many amendments and fiery predictions, the faculty, in a great leap of faith, voted 92–48 to adopt the WPI Plan as the university’s irrevocable path to the future. I was appointed dean of undergraduate studies by President George Hazzard, with his three-word job directive: “Implement the Plan.”

Historically, changes in education arrive piecemeal. WPI, however, designed an entirely new system of education to meet established objectives. These objectives emphasized developing students’ creativity and responsibility through a highly flexible curriculum. A competency examination and qualifying projects—including the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) to relate science and technology with human values and social need—were established for academic accountability and were required for graduation.

Projects, especially the IQP, were to be performed, when possible, at appropriate off-campus sites. There was a new grading system with only two grades (no F grades or GPAs). And, to accommodate the anticipated thousands of project registrations, we implemented a unique undergraduate calendar with seven-week terms. After 10 brave but traumatic years, the competency exam was replaced by course distribution requirements. The grading system reverted to using letters, but still without an F grade. Remarkably, little else of a critical nature was changed.

Other institutions expected—perhaps even nervously hoped—that WPI would lose its standing with the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). We not only maintained full accreditation, but we lived to see some of our ideas imbedded in ABET’s criteria.

The disciplinary Major Qualifying Project grew steadily in quality and sophistication. Today, a number of MQPs are even of master’s degree quality. Many students report that their off-campus project is the most influential experience of their WPI careers. In fact, WPI leads the nation in the number of students we send abroad. Today, students earn credit at project centers on five continents, where they blend technical and social research to solve critical problems. On campus, courses in all the departments have grown in number, quality, breadth, and depth.

It has often been said that the WPI Plan was 25 years ahead of its time when it was launched. Now that 35 years have passed, not only has technology transformed in substance, but its effects upon society have been explosive. While we see the United States leading in biomedical developments and many diverse technologies, we also see a populous India developing its software genius, and the boundless energetic manpower of China and the East transforming engineering and manufacturing enterprises. For WPI’s graduates, the future will hold great opportunities for those with skills in science and technology, but also for those who have the energy and self-confidence to develop collateral abilities in areas such as international organization, management of natural resources, communications, finance, cultural adaptability, and entrepreneurial self-confidence.

We at WPI have gained an enviable position through the structure of our educational program. Our challenge now lies in developing the resources and collective self-confidence to again move ahead with a new vision for the future.

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Last modified: Sep 28, 2006, 08:35 EDT
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