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Great Problems Seminars team

First-Year Student Team Earns Award at National HERA Conference

Great Problems Seminar Broadens Students’ Perspectives and Provides a Unique Learning Experience

May 27, 2021

In the Fall of 2020 a team of first-year students in the Great Problems Seminar (GPS) took on the longstanding and troubling issue of racial segregation and inequality in a major U.S. city, and devised a proposed solution that was recognized by the Humanities Education and Research Association (HERA) with an award earlier this year.

Ravyn Rapley '24 (civil engineering), Andrew Sosa '24 (computer science), and Bryce Yustick '24 (interactive media and game design) were challenged by Humanities and Arts Associate Professor Bethel Eddy and Interdisciplinary Assistant Teaching Professor Katherine Foo to determine community ways to move the marred racial relationships in St. Louis toward better understanding and more unified efforts to solve mutual problems. The class, Livable Cities, explored the possibilities and liabilities of human life in urban environments.

With long-standing, endemic racial problems, St. Louis, Mo., is racially segregated, separated along Delmar Boulevard. This so-called “Delmar Divide” splits the community along racial lines with 94 percent of those north of the boulevard primarily Black and burdened with a high rate of poverty, lack of public transit, food deserts, and poor healthcare, among other quality of life issues. South of the divide, whites enjoy greater prosperity and access to more services and opportunities.

Students’ Journey Leads Them to the Destination

To fully grasp the problem, team members learned as much as they could about the history of St. Louis, including its economic environment and geography, and communicated with city residents and leaders.

The students discovered that prior solutions were adult-centric and had little effect on the community’s racial issues. Like many solutions to great problems, their recommendation incorporates education and focuses on the community’s youth.

From giving interviews to creating a website, the (Great Problems Seminar) class gave me a platform not only to learn, but to teach fellow students and members of the community about issues occurring in our country and around the world.
Team member Andrew Sosa

The team proposed a high school course, St. Louis Problem Solvers, that aims to educate students on both sides of the Delmar Divide and involve them in developing a solution. Recommending a collaboration with community partners that include students, parents, teachers, and city organizations, the goal of this curriculum is to serve as a model for similar cities.

Sharing the Solution with a National Audience

After completing the work, Professor Eddy suggested that the team present at the HERA Conference held March 4–6. The students worked quickly to prepare additional materials and further solidify the project before virtually presenting to more than 100 attendees from across the country and international participants from seven foreign countries, culminating in their winning the Cueva Award for undergraduate research with their work, “St. Louis: Harnessing Youth Activism to Bridge the Delmar Divide.” As part of the award, the team received $500.

Preparing the Team for Future Project Work

Sosa says the class lays a foundation for project work in future classes and on projects such as the IQP and MQP. He points out that COVID presented some challenges in contacting individuals and organizations in St. Louis, trading ideas with other classmates, and meeting with the team. Despite those challenges, the project came together well under the guidance of professors Eddy and Foo.

"From giving interviews to creating a website, the GPS class gave me a platform not only to learn, but to teach fellow students and members of the community about issues occurring in out country and around the world," he says.

“Even with the global pandemic, the GPS class and both Professor Eddy and Professor Foo were very helpful and shaped the course for remote students such as myself to feel a part of the class, even while being miles away.”

Great Problems Seminar

The GPS is a two-term course that immerses first-year students in university-level research and introduces them to project-based learning. Begun in 2007, and now part of The Global School, the course is designed to teach a variety of skills including critical thinking, teamwork, and ethical decision-making—using knowledge and skills to tackle real-world problems.

Led by GPS director Kristin Wobbe, with support from an interdisciplinary faculty, this first-year-only optional course offers students an opportunity to study topics and related challenges with no clear-cut solutions, including climate change, sustainability, shelter, extinction, humanitarian engineering, and energy. Held over two terms with instruction from two professors from different disciplines, students first explore the many facets of a great problem outside their chosen disciplines, followed by a second term where they work in teams of three to five to develop a solution. With about 25 percent of first-year students participating in GPS, their semester’s work culminates in a poster presentation where they share their solution to the problem.

Of WPI’s interdisciplinary, project-based education, Eddy said, “Technology is a social phenomenon used by human beings, and any use of it impacts us, so we must understand, and consider, the repercussions on humanity and our environment. I am proud of the work that these students did, and the remarkable work done by the entire campus community.”

Because the reward is so great, Wobbe encourages all first-year students to take on the GPS challenge. “These three students did amazing work and they took advantage of an opportunity,” she said. “There are many more also doing incredible work with guidance and support from pioneering and innovative instructors and access to WPI’s extensive resources.”

When asked about student views of the GPS program, Eddy and Wobbe concur that, at the end of the first term, students are sometimes a bit overwhelmed, but by the completion of the course, they appreciate the skills they have acquired and are proud of their accomplishments. And even more important, data suggest that students who complete a GPS course more easily navigate the challenges of the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) later in their academic career.

View the project website.

- Sharyn Williams