Center for Project-Based Learning: A Conversation with the President

March 30, 2018
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The Center for Project-Based Learning is another bold first from WPI. Born of the same passion and persistence that launched the WPI Plan, the university’s landmark project-based learning model in the 1970s, the Center is changing the face of higher education. Faculty and administrators from colleges and universities around the world turn to WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning to benefit from our experience and expertise— and take what they learn back to their campuses. Our shared goal: to reimagine the systems of higher education. Center director Rick Vaz and Laurie Leshin chat about what this collaboration means for WPI.

LL I’d like to start with why. Explain for others: Why the Center for Project-Based Learning.

RV Higher ed has known for a long time that project-based learning can have an enormous benefit to students of all types, from the strongest to the least prepared student. However, very few colleges and universities have figured out how to implement project-based learning in ways that make sense for them. As you know, WPI has 48 years of experience in project-based learning, and we’re in a position to help others take that leap toward a more effective curriculum.

LL Share what kinds of things the center does with colleges and universities.

RV Our signature offering is the Institute on Project-Based Learning. In June we’ll be offering our fourth Institute, and we’re expecting about 180 participants from 30 colleges and universities around the country, and some international as well.

LL That’s scaled up...

RV Yes, it’s gotten bigger every year. Teams of five or six people will be here for three days, and each team will leave with an action plan. We also deliver custom workshops at colleges large and small all around the country—and our first international workshop was held in Peru last summer.

"In June we’ll be offering our fourth Institute, and we’re expecting about 180 participants from 30 colleges and universities around the country."

LL Explain what types of universities we have worked with.

RV Over 90 of just about every type—from community colleges to research universities.

LL That includes public, private, a historically black college, and international universities.

RV Exactly. Curricular change is a complex process that takes time, and very often the teams that attend the summer institute are at the beginning of the process. They’re looking for a vision, looking to identify a group of leaders and champions for their campus. Some that are a bit further along have us travel to them to present a custom workshop, which might last a couple of days, and involve anywhere from 15 to 50 faculty members.

LL With 90 schools—that’s close to a million students.

RV Yes, close to a million enrolled. So much evidence shows that this type of education can really benefit every student in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership.

LL We at WPI know that one of the biggest impacts of project-based learning is that students take responsibility for their own learning. If there’s one thing I could ask our graduates to do, it’s just that. Because they have to be lifelong learners. And we know project-based learning is about making that happen.

RV You’re right. In an alumni study we talked with 38 years’ worth of WPI alumni, and they credited their project experience for not only taking responsibility for their own learning, but developing a stronger personal character, having confidence, and having all the professional skills to succeed.

LL A lot of people, when they hear about this, worry about WPI losing its special and unique position as a leader in project-based education by sharing what we know with so many others. What do you say to rebut that?

RV I have yet to encounter an institution that would ever attempt to do what we do. Our students are doing projects across all four years, in and out of the major. Most of the clients we’re working with are trying to figure out just how to break projects into a single course or a single area of the curriculum. Most are working with very different students, resources, and cultures than those at WPI. No one can just adopt the WPI Plan, but everyone can learn from our experience in ways that will help their own students succeed.

LL This is really about making education as a whole better, which helps our reputation and is a fantastic community service.

RV I think that the biggest lever WPI has to change the world is to improve higher education in this way.

LL Well, thanks for your work, Rick. Congratulations on the first few years of success. And let’s keep it going!

WPI Journal Conversation with the President: Spring 2018

First published in WPI Journal, Spring 2018 edition