Worcester Polytechnic Institute

A Planning Program for Worcester Polytechnic Institute: The Future of Two Towers - Part Three: A Model


During the seven months of its existence the President's Planning Group endeavored to develop an understanding of the present status of WPI and to develop a set of possible objectives generally. The results of this work were presented in two reports, "The Future of Two Towers" and "The Future of Two Towers, Part II". During the past summer the faculty-elected Planning Committee has attempted to synthesize these results into a proposed overall goal and a corresponding model program of education. It is the purpose of the present report to present that synthesis for consideration by the College. Many details remain to be considered, but the Committee believe that the suggested program is educationally sound, meets a need for students and society, and deserves the attention needed to develop further details.

The proposed EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM (II), the suggested ORGANIZATION OF THE COLLEGE (III), discussion of CO-ORDINATION OF COLLEGE COMMUNITY LIFE WITH ACADEMIC PURPOSE OF THE COLLEGE (IV), and THE LOGISTICS OF PROJECTS AND INDEPENDENT STUDY (V) are discussed in this report. Section VI shows a procedure for further developing the model. An Appendix outlines the estimated cost of the program. While the report does not discuss the graduate program, it assumes that that will enhance the proposed undergraduate program.

The remainder of this section discusses the principal considerations which led to the proposed program.

A. Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Educational Innovation.

There is a growing feeling throughout the nation that many science and engineering educators have become so concerned with a narrow form of professionalism that they fail to react adequately to disturbing signs around them. For over a decade we have seen a loss of interest in engineering on the part of high school students; the disenchantment of students enrolled in engineering programs is notorious; and we have heard much about the importance of relating science and engineering to the needs of people. Many papers have been presented by national leaders which deplore the "lack of concern" on the part of the specialists and cite repeatedly the need for the humanist-professional. The need for some basic changes in the approach to 6 the education of scientists, engineers, and those who would work with them has been widely recognized.

The willingness to innovate or make significant changes in existing educational programs has been given lip service, but, with few exceptions, little has been done to renovate the structure beyond "painting the trim". There are many reasons for this general lack of activity in educational innovation. Sheer size of some institutions prevents development of new climates; finances are always tight; concern about "playing it safe" with accrediting agencies hinders creativity; but, in the long run, it is probably the ancient alliance of mental and structural inflexibility that really prevents new developments.

The purpose of the independent college has been the subject of many thoughtful writings, but one conclusion dominates all others: the major contribution of the independent college is to leaven the national educational scene with diversification and a source of innovative energy which lies beyond the capability of the public institutions. If the independent colleges do not really provide diversity, do not really provide a choice, but develop as privately financed carbon copies of the publicly managed institutions, then they will fail in the first important part of their mission; if they fail to innovate, they will fail in the second.

It is highly appropriate, and in fact necessary, for survival as an independent institution that Worcester Polytechnic Institute make a significant contribution in national educational leadership by providing an educational choice for students interested in scientifically - and technologically-oriented careers. Innovation is the essential ingredient in accomplishing this.

B. Conditions in the Status Quo to be Avoided.

From a study of the results of the April (1969) Planning Day, meetings with student living groups, and discussions with faculty it became obvious that there are some serious defects in matching WPI's educational effort to the needs of the students.

In common with many other technical schools, WPI's program developed from a discipline orientation and has evolved into a "course-work mill". That is, the curriculum has been built around the notion that a degree in a particular discipline requires certain information and techniques. While there have been many attempts to modify this picture in recent years, the tendency for over- lapping in the various disciplines has been largely ignored, resulting in course proliferation and duplication. Attempts to broaden the student by offering and even requiring courses in the humanities have largely failed, not only at WPI but elsewhere, because of the failure to show the students the relevance of their work in humanities to their professional careers. The result of these efforts is that the student finds his learning activities more or less "locked in" to a course program and satisfaction of his curiosity hampered by a formidable set of prerequisites.

A further factor of significance, as revealed by the living group visits, is the isolation of faculty from students. Here we do not speak of un- availability of faculty to answer student questions on technical material -- students are for the most part enthusiastic about WPI faculty in this respect. What is meant is isolation of the faculty as people who have a view of life, who practice what they preach, and who themselves are continuously learning.

The engineering students, particularly, find that they cannot relate their course work to their views of the practice of the profession. There is considerable repetition in the program. Students honestly admit that for the most part they are not putting forth their best efforts -- the program is just not worth that.

Finally, students find campus life devoid of interest. Intellectual interchange is the exception rather than the rule, and the very thing many of them hoped to find in college is missing.

One result of the above considerations is that the Committee has decided to relegate to an inferior position the argument that "our students have limited capability". This argument appears to be false and has so pervaded the thinking of both students and faculty that it has strongly affected the quality of WPI's present program.

C. Conclusions Based on Examination of the Twelve Possible Objectives for WPI.

Of the twelve possible objectives discussed in the first two progress reports, numbers 1 (High Quality Pre-Graduate Education), 2 (Educate for Leadership...), 3 (Classical Education), 5 (Middle College), 7 (...Educating the Underprivileged), and 8 (...Invention and Entrepreneurship) have some merit for a significant fraction of faculty and students with number 1 being the most popular. Relatively strong student support for the "General University" option and for adding a "Technological University" option seems to be based on a desire to facilitate shifting to a different major field rather than any particular enthusiasm for the kind of college implied per se.

Objective 3 (Classical Education) appears to be controversial in two respects.

First, students were particularly attracted to the freedom implied but were quite honest in wondering if there would be sufficient motivation for doing the work. Second, the success of such a program depends a great deal on a tradition of scholarship, a life style, and a pre-college education not available to WPI or its students. Nonetheless, making the student responsible for his own education has a considerable appeal to both students and faculty. The flexibility of the program is also attractive.

D. Essential Considerations in Developing a New Program.

Apart from the obvious fact (see "A" above) that a private college which merely mimics the State University cannot justify a separate existence and will eventually die from lack of funds, the Committee feel that there are several overriding considerations which should determine WPI's goal and the implementation thereof.

1. It is hopeless to attempt to provide the student with enough information and technique to see him through a lifetime of professional work. Rather, it is far better to develop the student's learning capability so that he can learn what is necessary to solve the problem at hand -- to meet the unfamiliar situation competently.

2. It has become obvious that society is being well supplied with technologists who, given time and money, can eventually solve nearly any technological problem from development of an anti-polio vaccine to placing a man on the moon safely. However, decisions as to what technology shall be developed and what problems attacked are made by the lawyer, the sociologist, and the politician who are, for the most part, unaware of the nature of technology itself. While most thoughtful people recognize this, there is not now a single college-level program which has adequately come to grips with the challenge of developing and encouraging the necessary human understanding in its science and engineering students.

3. The strongest motivating factor in student learning is the student's own interest, misplaced as that may be. Any particular problem becomes interesting once it is recognized as relevant to the student's interest.

4. The essence of the college experience is the environment -- the nature of the community. There is no stronger motivation for intellectual development than the inspiration of one's associates. Delight in learning is infectious.

E. The Suggested Program.

The foregoing considerations led the Committee to conclude that a program based in large measure on projects and independent study has basic merit. Such a program would provide practice in learning to meet the problem at hand. By making some of the project work deal with the interface between technology and the society it seeks to serve, we could at once provide the motivation and the means for developing the "humane technologist" to whatever extent is possible. Further, with such a program the College would have an opportunity to develop the uniqueness needed for its survival, and the students would find themselves sharing a learning situation with the faculty.

In order to avoid the pitfall of unnecessary and possibly obsolete requirements, degree requirements should be restricted to the necessary and sufficient condition that the student demonstrate his ability to learn. While the student should be allowed to specialize, maintenance of flexibility in the program and consistency with degree requirements indicates a Bachelor of Science degree without specification.

Courses must be offered in which the scattered experience gained from various kinds of project work is correlated into an integrated whole; this is a different type of course than the large majority of those now offered at the College.

Finally, the proposed program retains the possibility of execution of the attractive features of objectives 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8 (see "C" above).

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Last modified: Fri Mar 5 15:28:11 EST 1999