2017 Institute on Project-Based Learning This Week

Teaching methods to infuse project-based learning into students’ experiences
June 19, 2017

This week over 150 administrators and educators from more than two dozen colleges and universities will participate in the 2017 Institute on Project-Based Learning, an intensive two-and-a-half-day program focused on best practices in project-based education, the hallmark of WPI’s undergraduate curriculum. The program kicks off June 21 and, by the time it concludes on June 24, participating teams will have developed strategies and actionable plans suited to their own curricula and campus culture.  

Rick Vaz at the 2016 Institute.

“More and more, higher education is recognizing the value of the type of authentic, real-world, problem-solving experiences WPI has been providing for more than 40 years,” said Rick Vaz, director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning, which launched the program in 2015 in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “Through the Institute and other work by the Center, we’re able to help colleges and universities develop models and methods to infuse project-based learning into their students’ experience.”

The 26 teams attending this year’s Institute represent 25 diverse institutions, including public and private research universities; liberal arts, technical, and community colleges; and for-profit and online institutions from 19 states plus Nigeria, Singapore, Turkey, and Canada. The institutions range in size from 800 undergraduate students to 160,000.

This year’s keynote speaker is Randy Bass, vice provost for education at Georgetown University and founding executive director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. Bass is a thought leader in pedagogical research and an authority on inquiry-based learning.

New this year, WPI has provided funding for four engineering schools to participate in the Institute; those schools will be competing for awards of $5,000 to implement project-based learning in their curricula. Funding has been provided through the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, awarded to WPI in 2016 by the National Academy of Engineering in recognition of the WPI Plan. The Gordon Prize recognized the leadership and contributions of four faculty leaders, including Vaz, who continued the development and growth opportunities offered by the WPI Plan. 

Institute attendees will participate in interactive workshops in these areas:

  • Project-based learning as a first-year and general education strategy
  • Partnering with external organizations for project-based learning
  • Student project team formation, development, and mentoring
  • Integrating project-based learning into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses
  • Faculty development for project-based learning
  • Long-term impacts of project-based learning
  • Designing project-based learning experiences
  • Institutional leadership and organizational support for project-based learning

Attendees take part in a workshop during the 2016


Each team at the Institute will be paired with an Institute faculty coach who has been hand-selected to help address that team’s specific needs.

“WPI has a large stable of experts—350 full-time faculty—all of whom are engaged in project-based learning,” said Vaz. “We are joined this year by experts from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which co-sponsors the Institute, and from LaGuardia Community College.  Our Faculty Institute team brings rich insight to share that can help colleagues elsewhere have a greater impact in their own way.”

Vaz said that he and Paula Quinn, associate director of the Center for Project-Based Learning, have been gratified by the feedback from schools that seek to incorporate WPI’s learning model into their own curricula. “The interest from these high-caliber institutions is validation that what we’re doing as a university is valuable not only to our students, but also to our peers in higher education.”

The interest in the model extends beyond the June Institute—Vaz and Quinn have delivered custom workshops for 17 other universities this year alone; they project that number will grow in the coming year. Schools that either can’t come to the Institute or have a specific challenge on which they need help have contracted with the Center for a tailored on-site program for larger groups of their administration and faculty.

An attendee at last year's Institute participates in a 


Of note, two new engineering schools—Florida Polytechnic and Abdullah Gul University in Turkey—have sought out WPI’s expertise as they develop their own curricula. Also, in July, Vaz and Quinn will deliver a two-day project-based learning workshop for TECSUP, a technology college in Lima, Peru.

WPI was among the first universities in the United States to incorporate project-based learning in its undergraduate curriculum. A 2012 study of WPI alumni revealed that the experience has significantly impacted the professional abilities, interpersonal and communications skills, and professional advancement of alumni, and has also enhanced their world views.

“WPI is one of a small number of universities that strive to also have an impact on higher education by helping other institutions,” Vaz noted. “We often hear that it’s a risk to ‘give away’ our competitive edge, but the truth is, WPI took a tremendous risk decades ago when it essentially blew up its entire curriculum to develop and implement the WPI Plan. I don’t know of any school that could afford to take that kind of a risk today. Instead, we’re helping them have a greater impact by incorporating aspects of project-based learning into their existing curriculum.”

- By Alison Duffy