Dr. Berkey's Testimony for the March 20, 2006, Public Hearing

Testimony of Dr. Dennis D. Berkey
President and CEO
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
at the Commission's Public Hearing
Boston, Massachusetts
March 20, 2006

Thank you, members of the Commission, for the opportunity to present these remarks. My name is Dennis Berkey, and I have served since 2004 as President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WPI is a small, independent research university enrolling approximately 2800 undergraduates and 1000 graduate students. Founded in 1865 to prepare young men for engineering careers in the manufacturing industries of central Massachusetts, WPI now enrolls both women and men in a curriculum centered on engineering, science, technology, and mathematics, with strong academic and co-curricular programs in the arts and humanities, and in management. We place a high premium on excellence in undergraduate education, with rich student/faculty interaction and a unique approach to active, collaborative learning through a project-based curriculum. Each WPI undergraduate must complete three major projects, the most distinctive of which addresses an identified need or problem at the intersection of technology and society, most of which are carried out in small teams at one of our twenty project centers around the world. The projects range from the design of drip irrigation systems for impoverished farming communities in Thailand, to the preservation of canal infrastructure in Venice, to the development and support of a competitive robotics team in a local high school. This mode of learning emphasizes the development of important work and life skills such as: cooperation, teaming, appreciating differences, dealing with ambiguity, effectiveness in written and oral communication, and working within real constraints on time and resources. This "WPI Plan" is an expensive form of education to offer, but it is highly effective in preparing graduates to be excellent employees, practitioners, managers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders.

General Observations

In his classic essay, "The Aims of Education," Alfred North Whitehead warned about what he referred to as "inert ideas" -- ideas "that 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 said, "but the habit of the active utilization of well-understood principles is the final possession of wisdom."

Three quarters of a century later, we find similar views expressed in the 2004 book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. "The best teachers," he reports, "say that we construct our sense of reality out of all the sensory input we receive….When these highly effective educators try to teach the basic facts in their disciplines, they want students to see a portion of reality the way the latest research and scholarship in the discipline has come to see it. They don't think of it as just getting students to 'absorb some knowledge,' as many other people put it…they think about what they do as stimulating construction, not 'transmitting knowledge.' …they often want students to do something human beings don't do very well: build new mental models of reality."

In thinking about how to ensure the effectiveness of our system of higher education for decades to come, these proposals for the "aims of education" should guide us beyond mere concerns for the performance of students on standardized tests to an ambition for higher-order achievement, both by our students and by our institutions.

Collaborative Learning and Problem Solving

In asking what skills will students need to succeed in the 21st century, the Commission should note the success of programs such as the WPI Plan which engage students in collaborative learning and the applications of knowledge. Obviously such programs cement received knowledge by putting it to use. They involve as well the higher order skills of connecting disparate components of knowledge, the creative act of synthesis, and the imaginative art of applying the marshaled knowledge to solve genuinely important problems. Students who complete such collaborative work, when it includes requirements for written and oral explication, assemble in the course of their education a portfolio of reports and other documents which are as revealing of the nature and quality of their academic work as course grades and test scores. And the record shows, at least for WPI graduates, that they make excellent employees and experience high degrees of success in graduate and professional studies. I therefore

RECOMMEND (1): That the Commission endorse and recommend adoption of higher education curricula embracing collaborative learning and problem solving, such as that embodied in the WPI Plan, in order to better prepare graduates for productive contributions to the corporations, organizations, and communities which they will serve.

Strengthening Science and Mathematics Education

Meeting the nation's workforce requirements in our high technology, life science, and other sophisticated industries requires increased numbers of high school graduates well prepared to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ("STEM disciplines") in college. It is in both the national interest and our institutional self-interest that colleges and universities work with elementary and secondary schools to improve curricula and support the professional development of teachers in mathematics and science. One model, implemented by WPI and others, is to invite school teachers to become affiliated with university science and mathematics departments, thus forming peer relationships with university faculty, engaging with them in the fuller consideration of the shared academic field and not simply classroom methods and materials. Another important model, endorsed by such organizations as Mass Insight, is to ensure the presence of subject matter experts in mathematics and science in each school building. Such individuals serve as resources and coaches for teachers who may be teaching out of their own field or who simply can benefit from assistance in strengthening their teaching of mathematics and science. Such positions are often viewed as luxuries and eliminated when local school budgets must be cut, as has been the case in the Worcester public schools. The specialists, however, are vitally important to the goal of increasing the number of high school graduates ready for continuing study in the STEM disciplines.

Similarly, there are curricula available for adoption by the public schools that have proved highly successful in increasing students' interest and success in the STEM fields. One such example is Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an engineering-based curriculum for high school science and mathematics which is accompanied by formal connections between high schools and sponsoring colleges and universities. Graduates of PLTW programs are not only well prepared for and successful in collegiate study of engineering, but they have a very high success rate when pursuing other academic interests. WPI is the affiliate university for PLTW in Massachusetts, conducting workshops for PLTW teachers and accepting for college credit certain courses from certified PLTW programs. We know that it works, that it is relatively inexpensive to offer, and that it has great potential for further positive impact. In light of these observations I

RECOMMEND (2): (a.) That the Department of Education encourage and support efforts by colleges and universities to assist elementary and secondary schools in strengthening the teaching of mathematics and science, including funding for such programs; (b.) that the DOE provide funding for elementary and secondary schools specifically designated and used exclusively to provide science and mathematics subject matter experts in the schools; and (c.) that DOE funding be provided to enable the adoption of innovative programs with demonstrated success in improving mathematics and science education, such as Project Lead the Way.

Universities' Role in Economic Development

Following World War II Vanover Bush proposed, and the Federal government adopted, the approach of relying heavily on the nation's universities to develop the research that would fuel America's economic development for the next half century. The basic mechanism for accomplishing this was the faculty research grant, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation on the basis of peer-reviewed proposals. The nation once again needs our universities to aid directly our economic development, this time with direct investment and involvement in the economic development of the communities which they inhabit. One important component of this engagement is the transfer of intellectual property, in the form of patents and licenses, from the lab bench to the commercialization channels offered by companies large and small, including companies formed around particular promising technology.

A good example of such developments is Worcester's Gateway Park, an eleven acre brownfield parcel at one end of the city's downtown corridor which has been cleaned up and made ready for development by a partnership between WPI and the Worcester Business Development Corporation. The first building, now under construction and to be named the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Research Center, is slated to house research laboratories and graduate programs of WPI's Biology, Chemistry, and Biomedical Engineering Departments, WPI's Bio-Engineering Institute, and a startup incubator of the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiative, or MBI. The applied research and faculty presence will attract companies from the life science industries into three future buildings; housing at a range of price points will be developed in the district; and retail and other business tenants will round out this science-based, mixed-use development.

Gateway Park will ultimately provide one million square feet of new space for business and academic use, employment for more than 3,000 individuals, and a new vibrancy for a neighborhood important both to WPI and to downtown Worcester. The concept of Gateway Park, and particular needs for its development, have been strongly supported by Senators Kennedy and Kerry, Congressman Jim McGovern, State Senator Ed Augustus, and the City's Mayor, Tim Murray, and City Manager, Michael O'Brien. WPI stimulated the actual construction with $40 million in financing and a commitment to lease 75% of the space in the first building for its Life Sciences Center. It is a true partnership, anchored by WPI and involving the City, the business community, and the State and Federal Government. The fruits of Gateway Park will be more than jobs and real estate improvements. The research and graduate training carried out in its facilities, and the collaborative relationships developed across constituencies in this park, will strengthen our labor force, fuel our life science companies, and enhance WPI's research capabilities. Reflecting on this example I

RECOMMEND (3): That the Department of Education encourage universities to support local and regional economic development, build research collaborations between academe and industry, make strategic investments in neighborhood development, and actively solicit local, state, and federal support for such partnerships.

Access and Affordability

We share the concern of the Commission, the Congress, and the public over the rising price of a college education and the corresponding concern for access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students. Residential undergraduate and graduate education is expensive to provide, especially in the engineering and natural science disciplines where the costs of laboratories, instrumentation, and technology are high and rising faster than general inflation. Universities are working assiduously to control costs, to raise endowments and direct support for student scholarships, and to provide general financial aid. At WPI our most recent entering class received institution-based financial aid equal to approximately 41% of gross tuition charges. We have also developed a cooperation agreement with Quinsigamond Community College whereby students who successfully complete a two-year pre-engineering program can transfer to WPI as juniors, thus benefiting from two years of significantly lower tuition and, in some cases, overcoming deficiencies in their academic record which might have prevented them from being admitted to WPI as freshmen. Many other colleges and universities have similar programs.

These efforts are not enough. As it did with the National Defense Education Act following the launch of Sputnik, the federal government needs to make a greater investment in the education of the next generation of America's engineers, scientists, and teachers of science and mathematics. From the point of view of national economic competitiveness, higher education is less a private good than a national need and high priority. While all qualified and needy students should be provided greater amounts of financial assistance, those intending to study in areas most directly tied to the nation's economic development and competitiveness represent a compelling opportunity for investment. I therefore

RECOMMEND (4): That the federal government increase amounts allocated to student financial assistance, with special support for students studying in the STEM disciplines, and especially for those intending to teach these subjects at the elementary or secondary levels.

This completes my presentation. I appreciate the opportunity to make these remarks and offer these recommendations.

March 20, 2006