WPI Alumni Survey Reveals Powerful Impact of Project-based Learning on Professional Skills, Abilities, and World Views

Women Report Greater Gains from Project-based Learning
June 20, 2013

For more than 40 years, project-based learning has been the centerpiece of academics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Now, an extensive study of the effects of project-based learning on the professional abilities and world views of WPI graduates provides powerful evidence to support the value of WPI’s approach. The survey also offers strong indications that project-based learning may provide a key to attracting and retaining more young people–particularly women–to engineering and science careers.

Two papers on the survey and its results will be presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, being held June 23-25 in Atlanta (see details below). One paper will provide a comprehensive summary of the study and its implications for engineering education. The other will focus on how gender differences in the survey responses underscore the value of project-based learning for women, in particular.

The study of the long-term professional and personal benefits of project learning included a survey of 2,526 WPI alumni from the classes of 1974 through 2011. Twenty in-depth interviews were also conducted to help gain an understanding of why and how those benefits were obtained.

Four decades ago, WPI launched the WPI Plan, an academic philosophy emphasizing project-based learning—learning through projects that apply acquired skills and abilities to solving real-world problems. Major components of the Plan:

  • The Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), in which students, often in small teams, work under the guidance of faculty advisors to identify and develop recommended solutions to problems that lie at the intersection of science, technology, and societal issues and needs.
  • The Major Qualifying Project (MQP), which requires students to address and solve real-world, professional-level problems in their major discipline.
  • The Humanities and Arts Requirement, which requires students to gain depth in a particular area of the humanities or arts.

Today, more than half of undergraduates complete at least one required project off campus through WPI’s Global Projects Program. From a single project center established in Washington, D.C., in 1974, the program has grown to more than 30 project centers on five continents. Through global project work, students have made a difference in communities large and small, in nations developed and developing, helping communities in South Africa with water resource management, for example, and creating a comprehensive database of every aspect of the city of Venice – from the depth of every canal to the location of every piece of public art.

The study’s respondents, all of whom completed IQPs and MQPs, and many of whom participated in the Global Projects Program during their WPI years, reported high levels of impact in the following areas:

  • Professional abilities: Taking responsibility for their learning, developing ideas, integrating information, solving problems, understanding ethical responsibilities, using current technology.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills: Teamwork, project management, effective leadership, written communication, spoken communication, management of interpersonal dynamics, effective professional interactions.
  • Professional advancement: Succeeding in business or industry, having opportunities that students at other universities did not have, gaining knowledge to inform future plans.
  • World views: Understanding connections between technology and society, awareness of how their decisions impact others, awareness of global issues, understanding of other cultures.
  • Personal impacts: Developing a stronger personal character, achieving work/life balance, feeling connected to the WPI community, having their lives enriched in non-academic ways.

Female alumni reported more positive impacts of project work than males in 36 of 39 areas, with notable differences in interpersonal and communication skills, world views, and personal impacts. The differences were most pronounced under the category of "World Views," including "the ability to understand people of other cultures" and "understanding of the connections between technology and society." In the category of "Professional Impacts," covering benefits such as "being an effective leader," "effectively managing a project," and "understanding ethical responsibilities," women again revealed a much stronger sense of positive impact than men.

"The results of this study, along with our own decades of experience, indicates that giving students a social context in which they can apply what they have learned has enormous benefit to them in life, both professional and personal," said Richard F. Vaz, Dean of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies at WPI. "This seems to be particularly true with women, and gives us a direction for further research that might guide the academic community in its efforts to attract more women into these professions, and to better serve them with a curriculum that emphasizes collaborative applications of science and technology to important problems.

"Many students come to WPI expecting to be prepared to get good jobs when they graduate," Vaz continued. "But they’ve found their project-based education has given them much more: They are more sophisticated, more well-rounded, and therefore much better prepared for whatever the world throws at them."

Here are details about the studies that will be presented this week:

  • "Long-term Impacts of Project-based Learning in Science and Engineering," Arthur C. Heinricher, dean of undergraduate studies, WPI; Paula Quinn, Quinn, evaluation consulting; Richard F. Vaz, dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, WPI; and Kent J. Rissmiller, associate dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, WPI; Tuesday, June 25, 2013, at 8:45 a.m., in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room A406.
  • "Gender Differences in the Long-Term Impacts of Project-Based Learning." Richard F. Vaz, dean of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies, WPI; Paula Quinn, Quinn Evaluation Consulting; Arthur C. Heinricher, dean of undergraduate studies, WPI; and Kent J. Rissmiller, associate dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, WPI; Tuesday, June 25, 2013, at 4 p.m. in the Omni CNN Center Hotel, Omni-Dogwood A.