WPI Journal

October 1996

A Gateway to Adulthood

By Michael W. Dorsey

The WPI Plan is something of a paradox. Its basic elements can be described fairly well in a few hundred words, but the concepts and philosophy behind those elements are complex and continually evolving, making a complete understanding of this unique educational program difficult. Here is a primer that may shed a little light on one of the nation's most innovative approaches to technological education.

On a rainy November morning in 1868, a group of Worcester citizens and educational leaders from around the region trudged through muddy streets and climbed a steep, nearly treeless hill. Rising before them, side by side, were the gleaming facades of two brand new buildings. One was sheathed in rough-hewn granite, the other neatly encased in rows of bright red bricks.

Above each building rose a tower. From the tower of Boynton Hall, the granite building, four clock faces stared down. For decades, the Boynton clock would call students to lectures and labs in this, WPI's first classroom building. The tower of the Washburn Shops, the brick structure, sported an unusual weathervane. At its peak was a muscular arm, its hand firmly grasping a large blacksmith's hammer. The bronze arm symbolized the hard, manual labor students would expend within the Shops as they put into practice the theory of science, engineering and manufacturing.

While the rain drummed against the large windows of the chapel on the third floor of Boynton Hall, the invited guests listened to a long procession of speakers who welcomed the new Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science to the world of academia and proclaimed its mission. That mission, as the two towers silently testified, was to create a unique educational program that neatly balanced theory and practice, to educate young professionals who not only knew facts, formulas and equations, but who had the skill and self-confidence to use them to tackle real problems.

Just over a century later, WPI once again broke with the ranks of technological educators and fashioned a new program unlike any that had come before. Like its predecessor, the WPI Plan gave students the opportunity to hone their personal and professional skills through practical application. But there is more to the Plan than the marriage of learning and practice. The Plan is built upon a well-reasoned philosophical foundation -- a distinct set of beliefs about the role of faculty members and students in the process of learning.

The Plan was created at a college quite different from the larger, more diverse technological university that WPI has become in the last quarter century. WPI in the mid- to late 1960s was a more rigid and conventional institution, a school where the emphasis was on passing a largely pre-determined sequence of courses, and in the process, it was believed, gaining the knowledge one needed to be a competent technological professional. This is the model still followed by the majority of technological institutions in this country.

The members of the faculty Planning Committee that created the Plan believed that this model, while it had provided a solid education to many generations of WPI students, was not the best way to prepare young people for the challenges of their careers and lives. They believed that higher education, at its core, should be a gateway to adulthood, a period during which men and women can gain the emotional, social and intellectual maturity they need to succeed in life. Attaining maturity requires taking on responsibility and making decisions -- even failing, from time to time.

In fact, the Plan places a great deal of the responsibility for their education on the shoulders of students. In stark contrast to the largely prescribed curricula of the 1960s, the Plan gives students the freedom to structure their own academic programs, with considerable guidance from their advisors.

There are no required courses, and undergraduate courses have no prerequisites -- only recommended background courses. Students must fulfill a set of distribution requirements in their major field. These are designed to assure that students do, indeed, acquire an "excellent grasp of fundamental concepts in their principal area of study," as the university's Goal Statement asserts. About a decade ago, distribution requirements replaced the "live or die" Competency Exam as the method of verifying that students had learned what they needed to know to enter their chosen profession.

The Planning Committee also believed that in its ideal form, education is a process of learning how to learn, and that a WPI education should instill in students "an intellectual restlessness that spurs him or her to continued learning." They recognized that traditional technological programs -- including WPI's -- placed too much emphasis on memorizing facts and equations and passing tests, and too little on learning how to acquire and synthesize knowledge and apply it to real problems. They decided to develop a new spin on the century-old Two Towers model.

Under the Plan, students take courses and independent studies and engage in self-directed learning to acquire needed skills and knowledge. But this learning is not an end in and of itself. It is also preparation for the Plan's primary degree requirements -- the "practice" side of the Plan. Students apply the knowledge and competence they gain though their academic work by completing three major projects, each having been designed to address a set of skills, qualities and abilities the Planning Committee believed technological professionals should acquire during their WPI careers.

The Planning Committee believed that in its ideal form, education is a process of learning how to learn.

To begin with, the committee believed, WPI graduates should be aware of the world of knowledge beyond their own areas of study. If they are preparing for careers in science and technology, they should appreciate how the study of history, philosophy, art or music enrich one's professional and personal lives. Likewise, students pursuing degrees in the liberal arts should appreciate how scientists and engineers approach their work and be familiar with the technology -- especially computer and telecommunications technology -- that is so important to virtually every career today.

To help students develop this awareness, WPI created the Sufficiency. The name of this project derives from the idea that students need a depth of exposure to either a humanistic or technical field sufficient to produce more than a cursory appreciation. The project requires students to take five thematically related courses and then to complete an original work of scholarship that somehow derives from the content of those courses. The works students have completed include research papers, lengthy essays written in another language, original plays, short stories, novels, musical compositions and musical performances.

The framers of the Plan also believed that technological professionals should understand that they do not work in a vacuum; that their work affects society, and that society, in turn, affects the kinds of work they do -- or need to do. More and more, engineers and scientists must deal with social and political issues as part of their careers and lives, and must develop partnerships with professionals in nontechnical fields to successfully carry out their assignments.

The IQP has been widely recognized as the most creative and effective innovation in technological education in the last quarter century.

This belief led to the creation of the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP). Put simply, the IQP requires students to complete original research and scholarship on a topic that lies on the boundaries of science, technology and society.

Read the abstracts of a hundred of these projects, and you might be hard pressed to find a common theme among them. To fulfill the IQP requirement, students have studied the problems of garbage collection in a large slum in Bangkok, looked at the potential for using biogas as an energy source in Botswana, made numerous studies of the American patent system for the U.S. Patent Office, developed innovative curricular materials and courses for pre-college classrooms, researched and built exhibits for major New England museums, studied health care management issues at hospitals in San Francisco, and developed technology to help disabled persons in London lead more productive and rewarding lives.

The IQP has been widely recognized as the most creative and effective innovation in technological education in the last quarter century. While other elements of the Plan have been duplicated to some extent at other colleges and universities, nothing quite like the IQP yet exists beyond the boundaries of the WPI campus.

In addition to completing the Sufficiency and IQP, WPI students must tackle the Major Qualifying Project (MQP). The MQP was created in response to a number of convictions about what a professional should be capable of. First and foremost, he or she should be able to size up a problem, develop a solution to it, and then implement that solution competently and professionally. That's why MQPs, by and large, are professional-level design or research projects that give students hands-on exposure to the kinds of work assignments they will really do after graduation.

Professionals today also need to be able to work in teams and to communicate well in writing and orally. Most MQPs are completed by student teams, giving team members a true appreciation for the challenges and rewards of cooperating with other professionals to get important work done under a deadline. MQPs must be thoroughly documented in a written report. In addition, virtually all MQP teams make an oral presentation to their advisors and sponsors.

In recent years, WPI has added an exciting new dimension to the Plan by building a growing infrastructure for student project work away from campus. In the process, the university has taken the lead in globalizing technological higher education. In fact, WPI students currently account for more than 15 percent of all U.S. engineering students studying abroad. WPI's Global Perspective Program has grown from the conviction that to be successful in business, engineering and science in our increasingly interdependent world, engineers and scientists must understand other cultures and be able to work with -- and compete against -- people from all nations and backgrounds.

WPI's comprehensive program is aimed at giving all undergraduates a global perspective. To this end, the university maintains an extensive network of project centers and programs around the world. Working in teams under the supervision of faculty advisors, students spend seven weeks at an international project center conducting professional-level projects proposed by off-campus sponsors. Students can complete any of the three required WPI projects -- the Sufficiency, the IQP and the MQP -- overseas or off campus within the U.S. Through academic exchange programs with technical universities in nine nations, students can spend as long as a year taking courses and continuing their study of such languages as French, German, Russian and Spanish.

"While some of the early features of the Plan reflected the times in which they were developed, the basic educational processes are timeless," says William R. Grogan '45, dean of undergraduate studies emeritus. "Placing responsibility for learning in the hands of the students -- including responsibility for making their own course decisions and selecting their own qualifying projects -- and requiring accountability for acheiving professional outcomes through project activities combine to produce an outstanding educational experience.

"We enter the next 25 years with a vast array of new teaching technologies, a rapidly broadening spectrum of student interests, and an explosion of new career challenges. As we do so the WPI Plan will evolve and grow, but remain the best format yet developed in technological-based education to acheive that elusive but essential goal of learning how to learn."

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:50:08 EDT 1999