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Teach your children well…

In a previous life, I was a reporter for a daily paper in Connecticut. On one particular evening in the newsroom, I was arguing with my colleagues over some numbers-percentages-that were to appear in a graphic in the next day's paper. We couldn't agree on the correct numbers, or even how to compute them. And all I could think was: We're smart, educated, reasonable adults. Why can't we figure out a simple math problem?

Until recently, I'd chuckle when I thought about that evening. I liked to think that the pressure of our looming deadline had temporarily frozen our brains, rendering us absolutely useless in math. But over the past few months as I worked on this issue of Transformations, which focuses on innovative approaches to education-and, more specifically, innovative approaches to math, science, and engineering education in the 21st century-the humor of that moment faded. It began to seem indicative of a larger issue.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 17 percent of high school seniors are considered proficient in math. This statistic is just one in the much-anticipated report from the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

As we go to press, the commission-19 individuals from academia, business, and government-is finalizing its report, which will recommend a national strategy to strengthen postsecondary education. In a preliminary draft, the commission states that U.S. college graduates are, on the whole, less educated than their counterparts overseas. If the United States is to remain globally competitive, the report says, universities must enhance and improve student learning, an effort that shouldn't be limited to the upper echelons of academia, but shared by everyone-two- and four-year public and private universities, community colleges, and the K-12 system. As I read the draft, I noted two recommendations:

"America's colleges and universities [should] embrace a culture of continuous innovation and quality improvement… particularly in the area of science and mathematical literacy."

"The United States must ensure the capacity of its universities to achieve global leadership in key strategic areas such as science, engineering, medicine, and other knowledge-intensive professions."

For me, these points suggest that the country needs more schools like WPI, for the university is already well positioned to fully educate the next generation. Our approach to learning, where education is truly put into action, is what has led our alumni to become, yes, scientists and engineers, but also leaders, managers, entrepreneurs, problem solvers, critical thinkers.

The pages that follow offer a sampling of the relevant and vital work being done by those in our community. We sit down with President Dennis Berkey, who talks about the university's progress and the direction we're headed. And to put this article into context, we look back at 35 years of the WPI Plan. We also feature the inspirational stories of various alumni whose work directly impacts the quality of science and engineering education, and the quality of future engineers themselves.

There's more-an intelligent tutoring system designed by a CS professor helps youngsters learn math. And a project team makes a difference in the lives of blind children.

Thanks for reading.

Charna Westervelt, Editor
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Last modified: Sep 28, 2006, 09:56 EDT
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