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The Core of Science and Engineering

I recently had the opportunity to present testimony to the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. During a public hearing in Boston, I made suggestions, based on WPI’s successful experience with its distinctive approach to education, on how we can ensure our nation’s colleges and universities are preparing students to compete in the new global economy. The work of this federal commission—including a final report later this summer—will serve as the blueprint for a twenty-first century model of higher education.

In my testimony I referred to Alfred North Whitehead’s classic essay “The Aims of Education” and his skepticism about the teaching of “inert ideas,” which he warned are “merely received into the mind without being utilized or tested. The details of knowledge which are important will be picked up ad hoc in each avocation of life,” he wrote, “but the habit of the active utilization of well-understood principles is the final possession of wisdom.”

It is Whitehead’s “imaginative engagement” in learning that we seek every day at WPI—in our classrooms, in our labs, in our required projects, and in the academic discourse that extends beyond classroom walls. Indeed, our commitment to learning in and out of the classroom dates back to our school’s founding principle: Lehr und Kunst, theory and practice. WPI’s forefathers were remarkably insightful in taking this radically different approach to education as, 140 years later, their philosophy continues to guide our highly effective approach to science and engineering education.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of a WPI education today is the Interactive Qualifying Project, in which teams of students address problems at the intersection of technology and society. Under the direction of our Global Studies Program, the IQP experience extends our tradition of theory and practice literally around the globe. Whether they’re working in Costa Rica to assist energy conservation efforts, in Namibia to improve sanitation, or in Worcester to assess brownfield redevelopment, our students learn how to solve problems as members of a team, in real time, in the real world.

WPI’s innovations in educational philosophy and pedagogy do not in any way detract from its traditional focus on engineering and basic science. Indeed, students continue to come here to study automotive and aerospace engineering (mechanical engineering remains our most popular major), robotics, building design, chemical processes and their applications, and computer and communications technologies and systems. The more recently developed programs in biomedical engineering and the life sciences, where the power of modern technology and science is applied to vitally important problems in health and medicine, are growing in popularity. (See page 18 for a related story on Gateway Park.) And WPI’s programs in the management of technology prepare students for leadership in a world heralded by Tom Friedman as increasingly flat, global, and competitive.

In addition to our distinctive approach to education in both traditional and emerging areas of engineering, science, and management, WPI encourages real engagement with the arts and humanities as part of a complete education. Ours is a campus on which musical and theatrical groups abound and thrive, and where faculty advisors direct students to study deeply in one or two areas of the traditional liberal arts in preparation for a required project synthesizing and commenting on their experience in these courses. We do this because we understand the importance of broadly educated citizens—thoughtful individuals leading examined lives, motivated by compassion as well as passion.

We understand also that leadership and innovation, two qualities that we aspire to foster in all of our students, come not only from the collaborative experiences of working in teams and across boundaries of knowledge and culture, but also from the creative instincts fostered by the experience of different modes of thought and ways of working.

Succeeding in our rapidly evolving technological world—both personally and professionally as individuals, and collectively as a nation and a global community—is a highly complex challenge. That is why WPI continually strives to prepare its graduates extremely well, not only to be well-trained engineers and scientists, but to be broadly educated citizens of the world. Generations of alumni have benefited from this understanding and philosophy, as will generations to come.

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Last modified: Apr 19, 2006, 22:28 EDT
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