Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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


A. Introduction.

Implementation of the concept that each student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute will have a minimum average commitment of approximately 25% of his time in individual involvement through project work, independent study and field work will require the development of new techniques, new facilities, and, above all, new attitudes.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute cannot be unique and remain the same; it cannot experiment in a significant manner with the educational process and re- main the same; it cannot increase student involvement and keep the same academic regulations.

In considering the logistics of involvement, no single resource is as important as the faculty. Under the recommended plan the individual faculty member, largely free from the framework of an elaborate impersonal quality point system and the cannons of "Regulations for Students", will assume far greater personal responsibility for the development of each student with whom he has contact. The professional competence and teaching interest of each faculty member will be placed in a bright light, since as a worker himself he will be constantly learning, meeting new situations, and at the same time guiding the development of his students. Whether directing independent study, developing undergraduate research, leading a technical project, or studying a governmental problem, the faculty will assume the role of learners and doers themselves. This development will bring into sharp focus an issue often discussed but usually obscured by an elaborate shroud of academic infrastructure: the standards of a college are really the standards of the individual faculty members.

B. The Program Structure.

Since experience alone can determine the ultimate structure of the program, it is possible to develop the model based only upon the experience of relatively small undertakings of this type, both here and on other campuses.

Drawing upon experience gained here and on other campuses, four general types of activity for the WPI program can be envisioned:

TYPE A: Individual Work. Individual study and research; directed field work; domestic and foreign programs--VITA, UNESCO, exchange programs.

TYPE B: Individual Team Projects. Three-man units, on the average, undertaking a large range of activity from ES 102-type projects through senior level industrial projects and research.

TYPE C: Comprehensive Project Activities. Two sub-units of three to four students each, working in areas which may combine upperclassmen leaders with underclassmen in a supporting role, or combinations of technical and humanistic efforts.

TYPE D: Systems Project Divisions. Basic groups of fifteen, including those from a variety of levels and study interests. These groups would be core divisions of study efforts in environment, computer simulation, robotics, system design and prototype development. It is expected that many projects undertaken in this area would receive outside support.

Experience with existing project work indicates that a three-man group forms a satisfactory working unit. one member, serving as leader, coordinates the work of the group. Since a professor can follow the work of fifteen students at most, no faculty member should supervise more than five three-man units.

Type C activities, for example, would normally require two three-man units with an "activity leader" being the seventh member of the team, unit leaders and activity leaders would assist the professor in evaluating the contributions of the unit members. It is expected that graduate assistants would play an important role as both Type C activity leaders and assistant division directors, both in assorted five-team groupings and in Type D programs. Active responsibility will substantially enhance the educational experience of graduate assistants, especially in the engineering programs.

The following is a probable initial distribution model for the activity classifications listed above (assuming 2/3 of students involved in on-campus projects).

A 1 300 300 15%
B 3 150 450 23%
C 7-8 40 285 14%
D 15 20 300 15%
510 1335 67%

The logistical figures given in this section and the subsequent one are nothing more than reasonable projections. The proposed program is sufficiently flexible to allow considerable deviation from these tentative distributions. For instance, up to two thirds of the student body could be easily accommodated in project work during any given year. The critical parameter is the figure of fifteen students per full-time supervisor.

Many faculty members, actively involved with projects, would still be teaching their specialties by acting as consultants to workers in other projects.

In the preceding paragraphs only full-time faculty have been considered. It is expected that the faculty, as leaders and consultants in the program, will have the status of professionals and will be supported in project development by graduate students, upperclass project leaders, off-campus experts, and paraprofessional staff in technical and logistical support.

Under this type of organization, seniors and graduate students will have a real operational responsibility, an experience almost totally lacking in our existing programs. Furthermore, there will be a substantial reduction in the barrier between ivory tower and community, with qualified leaders from outside participating actively on the campus and with WPI students meeting people and situations off the campus.

C. The Role of the Faculty in the Program.

The successful promulgation of the proposed program will depend to a considerable extent upon faculty capabilities and interests. A discussion of a possible distribution of faculty participation, involving the undergraduate program only, appears below. This distribution is based upon the assumption that there is an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2000 students. In section B above, there appears an initial distribution model of student project activity. A corresponding model of faculty activity can be derived by considering the student model from the faculty point of view. There are three essential considerations: (1) during any given term, some 2/3 of the student body should be involved in on-campus projects; (2) a full-time faculty member could be expected to direct the work of 15 students on projects; (3) a 15:1 student-faculty ratio is academically feasible and economically desirable. Thus, during any given term, there would be approximately 1,333 students in projects on the campus and a need for 133 full-time equivalent faculty involved in the undergraduate program. On the basis of these figures, the model appearing in the table below represents an initial distribution of faculty participation, recognizing the varied interests of the faculty and the consequent degrees of involvement in the project work:

Number of Faculty for each Type of Participation Number of Students on Projects for each Faculty Member Total Number of Students Involved Number of Course Secs. Taught by each Faculty Member Total Number of Course Sections
15 15 225 1 15
60 12 720 1 60
30 9 270 2 60
20 6 120 3 (1 dupli.) 60
10 0 0 4 (1 dupli.) 40
135 1335 235

At this point, it is well to compare the requirements of the model with the realities of our present program. During the academic year 1968-69 the average number of course sections per term was 358.* It is clear, therefore, that this figure must be reduced. A substantial saving in faculty time as well as cost can be effected by employing greater use of the lecture method to large student groups, utilizing graduate students and, in a few instances, selected upperclassmen to handle tutorial sessions. An additional saving can be accomplished by the consolidation of a number of existing courses, each covering essentially the same topics but taught by a number of different departments. The latter reduction would, of course, be a natural consequence of the suggested revisions in the organizational structure of the College. Finally, some of the semester courses could be replaced efficiently by independent study, student-operated seminars, or restructured eight week one term courses. For example, the course offerings of the last academic year (see above) could have been reduced to approximately 157 sections for the first semester and 179 sections for the second semester, including 70 and 104 one-section courses, respectively. In no instance would more than 100 students have been grouped into a single lecture section.

*Does not include seminars, research projects, independent study, physical education, military science, or the evening program.

There is also some question regarding the capability of the individual faculty member to supervise projects involving as many as fifteen students effectively. To some extent, this is a matter of the individual concerned and the nature of the projects under his direction. For this reason, the bulk of those involved with projects would be working with fewer than fifteen students, since it is essential that no faculty member be overloaded in this way. An excessive student load would impair the supervisor's effectiveness and could well lead to general superficiality in his projects. It is important to remember that each faculty member would receive some assistance in planning for and obtaining projects through the staff of the Dean of Program Operations and that his own load would be regularly and carefully reviewed to avoid the over-utilization of his talents.

WPI is fortunate in having a sufficient number of well-qualified faculty to make the above model realistic. A brief review of the current staff has convinced the Planning Committee that even on a minimal basis, there are enough faculty to support each category within the model. It would be our suggestion, however, that the College appoint some ten additional faculty, chosen primarily for their ability to generate and supervise major projects. This addition would permit adequate rotation of those involved with such projects, an important consideration for the long-term continuation of the program. Since the initial stages of the proposal are of such critical importance, it is suggested that these additional staff appointments be made as soon as possible in order to provide a substantial reservoir of highly qualified personnel to generate the first major projects.

It is our belief that each faculty member, regardless of his commit- ment to the project phase of the program, should teach at least one course for at least two of the four eight-week terms during the academic year. The reasons for this stipulation are two-fold: first, the faculty member actively involved with project work is in a learning situation, and it would be helpful if he could impart his attitudes and thoughts to a wider group of students than he might be supervising; second, his classroom efforts should assist him in maintaining a proper objectivity about the en- tire academic program and will force him to remain current with developments in his specialty. Clearly, those with little or no participation in some form of project work or research must assume a fairly heavy teaching load.

The model does not include specific allocation of faculty time for advising. Good teachers, by the very nature of their interest in their subject and students, are constantly involved in informal yet meaningful advising; there is no reason to expect that such would not continue to be the case. Since the emphasis of the program is to create an atmosphere of self-education with a minimum amount of formal structure, the role of the advisor is considerably altered. He is no longer either a taskmaster or a policeman but rather a more experienced co-worker who suggests possible alternatives for the student to pursue. Within this context, it is assumed that specific time allocated by the faculty for advising will be relatively minimal and far less frustrating than at present. Much of the advising will be the natural by-product of participation in independent study, seminars, and projects; some will come from older students further along in their studies; some will also come from those faculty teaching formal courses; and the remainder will develop through the dialogue between the student and his appointed advisor or between him and those faculty to whom he is referred by that advisor.

As the proposed program reaches full operation, there will undoubtedly be perturbations on the suggested model. The organizational structure visualized would permit necessary changes to occur with as little disruption as possible. No faculty member would regard his participation as permanently categorized. Indeed, he might vary his activities from year to year, not only to satisfy the demands of the total program but also to provide flexibility for his own personal and professional development.

D. Space Requirements.

With a major emphasis on project and seminar activities at all student levels, the space requirements of the College will be significantly altered. It will be essential that project groups have exclusive access to some type of work and office space to carry out their activities. They will need these areas to meet together, to work, and to store their project materials. Much of the student's intellectual growth will be sparked by these projects and seminars, and a private "home base" for the teams is very important for educational stimulation.

Fortunately one of the College's present major strengths is its physical plant. At present there is a large amount of little used space that could be adapted for project work or offices. The instructional laboratory space on the campus is being utilized on the average only 23 percent of the available time. This figure is exclusive of research laboratories.

Approximately 64 percent of the total of about 124,000 square feet of instructional space on the campus is used for laboratory. This space potential places WPI in an enviable position for major project and seminar activities. There are ample areas available that can be modified as required. Indeed, this program will remedy an embarrassingly low utilization factor. Some buildings such as Atwater Kent already have many fairly small cubicle arrangements that would be ideal for project office space. There is a large amount of uncommitted space available for remodeling: for example, the top floors of Salisbury Laboratories and the Washburn Shops are both empty.

The classroom activities of the College will also undergo major changes under the proposed program. It is conjectured that there would be a large percentage increase in small size seminar courses. Coupled with this, on the other hand, there would be increased demand for large lecture courses. Under these constraints, the College classroom space capability is limited. Many WPI classrooms are of the twenty-five to thirty-five student size with rather few large lecture halls and few available seminar rooms. There are, however, many inexpensive methods of subdividing existing medium size class- rooms into smaller units. As more detailed studies of the program progress, the number of basic formal course offerings required will set the demands for large lecture halls. The committee cannot at present determine if this factor is critical. There would be a tendency for less fragmentation of courses. For example, probably only one campus-wide basic course offering in fluid mechanics would be necessary. This reasoning could be applied to many dif- ferent disciplines, and it could increase the demand for large rooms. On the other hand, the classroom utilization factor at the College is at present so low that an increased number of large classes might be easily accommodated. It is also true that this program will significantly reduce the total number of formal courses.

E. Technical Services.

The proposed program will change the technical service needs of the campus. Projects dealing with real problems will require first, an ample supply of modern instrumentation and, second, a staff of technicians and machinists to support the projects. These needs will foster the establishment of a central purchasing department and stock and instrument-room facilities. WPI already has technical personnel to support its present research and educational activities. With two to three hundred project activities in operation, however, this staff would have to be increased. Probably the most critical shortage initially would be adequate numbers of electronic instrumentation specialists.

Under the new curriculum, the students would have much more opportunity and need to undertake some of their own fabrication and testing in connection with project concerns. WPI would have to develop a student shop function where students could do their own experimental work. This means that supervisory personnel and clerks would be required to staff these facilities during rather extensive daily hours--much as a library service. In qualifying students to use these facilities, much use could be made of tape libraries, film, and filmstrips for information passage. For example, the basic operation of cathode ray oscilloscopes could be taped for hands-on use by the student. This type of student laboratory-shop facility does not exist to any extent here now, and its development represents a considerable effort. However, its initiation strongly supports the Two-Tower tradition, and laboratory and shop facilities available and open for student use are vital to the program in addition to facilities manned and operated by professional technicians. WPI has a large supply of shop equipment already available but little used at present which can be used for this purpose. Indeed, a recent case of students breaking into a machine shop to use the equipment is a painful example of the wrong but prevailing attitude.

Finally when students and faculty are involved in projects, there will be extensive interaction with the project sponsor. The College will have to support insurance liability in conjunction with these activities. The reluctance of the College to accept this responsibility in the modest student project efforts presently conducted at WPI has hampered the development of this activity.

It is anticipated that the sponsoring organizations will supply significant technical services to support the College activity. This would decrease the burden for development of these services by the College.

F. Project Development.

The sources of project activity are many and varied. Many projects will spring from faculty interests that are unsponsored but provide significant educational experience. The present activities of ES-102 fall within this category. Other faculty-sponsored research will provide experience for all levels of students. The Alden Laboratory will find increased technical support from faculty and students. The Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology represents a potential major source of project; work. Government agencies, 36 municipal, state and federal, will provide important source areas. For example, the state of New Jersey already has operating an internship program for college students to work actively in state socio-technical problems at a decision making level.

G. Organizing the New Program.

Once the program described in the preceeding pages is in operation, one idea will produce another, one project will lead to several, and a reputation for action will radiate. There is, however, an obvious and breathtaking chasm between the current educational operations of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and those outlined in this plan. To succeed, the program must be brought into operation in as short a time as possible. There will be little hope of significant achievement if projects and independent research and study are reluctantly tolerated as ancillary activities. They must form the core of the student's educational experience at the college.

It is anticipated that a three-year development period will be necessary to prepare for full commitment to the program. The phases of the development period would be as follows:

First Year:
Organization of the development group
Acquisition of funding
Recruitment of additional members of the group
Pilot program development
Task identification for second year implementation

Second Year:
Activity development
Resource development
Selective pilot program operation

(In the "pilot program" it is proposed that the full concept of the program including the new degree requirements be implemented for a small number of selected students. Students from all classes would be invited to apply for enrollment in the pilot program. The purpose of the pilot years would be to gain experience in handling the program and set up mechanisms to provide smooth flow of communications.)

Third Year:
Enlarged pilot operation at all levels
Completion of activity and resource development

Fourth Year:
Full operation

Were, for example, the program development to start during 1970, the freshmen of 1974 would be the first to enter with the program in full operation.

Activity Development should include the following tasks:

(a) Field Program Liaison (VITA, UNESCO, VISTA, Peace Corps, Internships, Foreign and Domestic Exchange Programs).

(b) Development of Industrial Projects.

(c) Government-Oriented Activities, Technical (NASA, NSF, NIH).

(d) Government-Oriented Activities, Socio-Humanistic (State, Federal, Local).

(e) Development of On-Campus Faculty-sponsored Projects and Research.

(f) Development of Independent Study Activities.

Academic Resource Development should include the following:

(a) Development of New One-Unit (two month) courses.

(b) Development of Seminar Programs with short, state-of-the-art presentations by invited lecturers, special workshops on specific subjects, and cultural programs, both on and off campus.

(c) Development of Educational Aids, including TV and Audio tapes for self-learning of routine but essential background material in a wide variety of areas.

(d) Consolidation of traditional course material in new "Study Group" structure, and formation of that structure.

(e) Reorganization of classroom and laboratory space to meet new requirements, such as provision for many concurrent project activities.

(f) Development of supporting staff of technical and clerical personnel.

(g) Study of operational problems (experimental supervision, stock room control, purchasing methods, patent rights, proprietary information, legal constraints and liabilities).

To implement the program, it will be necessary to establish a task force whose primary responsibility is to carry out the work outlined above. A study of the tasks to be performed indicates that various levels of activity are appropriate to the three phases of development.

During the first year the effort will be directed towards planning with primary concern for recruiting the next year's members of the task force and of planning with precision the tasks that must be performed by the individuals during the intensive second year. It is proposed that the initial group contain five members.

During the second year the initial group would be augmented by five members, most of whom would be personnel on a year's leave of absence from industry, government or other colleges.

During the third year there would be expanded pilot program operation and conclusion of the major development effort. At this time the permanent operational personnel would start phasing into the program. During this year the number committed to program development full-time could again be reduced to five.

Since the development effort must be undertaken in addition to maintaining on-going programs, an incremental personnel cost will be incurred during the three-year development period. These expenses, based upon salary costs with approximately 90% overhead appear to be as follows:

FIRST YEAR 5 men $150,000
SECOND YEAR 10 men 250,000
THIRD YEAR 5 men 150,000
Total: $550,000

There will also be initial costs involved in certain physical plant conversions in uncommitted spaces and laboratory areas.

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