Geoff Pfeifer conversing with President Laurie Leshin

Geoff Pfeifer: A Conversation with the President

June 24, 2019
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President Laurie Leshin talks with Geoff Pfeifer, associate teaching professor of philosophy and international and global studies

LL Geoff, you teach our first-year project course, Great Problems Seminar, which is still relatively new at WPI. What's it like to do project work with students who are fresh into WPI?

GP It's a lot of fun. They come in, they're excited, and nervous because they hear about the program and they hear it's a lot of work. But they're a great group to work with.

LL And what kind of GPS classes are you teaching?

GP I teach one called Livable Cities, which deals with issues of urbanization, from things like climate change to gentrification to greening cities. I also teach one on energy issues called Power the World.

LL And the students each do a project right?

GP Yes, they work in teams of three to five. It's a two-term course. Second term they choose a topic within the umbrella of the larger course and work on that for seven weeks, learning about the issues involved with the problem they are dealing with and come up with some proposals for solutions.

LL It’s a great exposure to WPI's project-based curriculum right when they come in the door.

GP Absolutely.

LL As we are diversifying our campus—more women, more students of color—we've been thinking a lot more about the dynamics of inclusion within team-based projects, and I know you've been doing some research there. Tell me about the project you're working on.

GP This is a project I've been involved in for about three years now with Professor Lisa Stoddard. She and I, a few years ago, were looking at some data that we were getting in the GPS program around minoritized students leaving WPI at a slighter higher rate after taking our classes than in other programs. We wanted to figure out what was going on, and we started thinking more in detail about the experiences of women on teams on campus, students of color on the campus, and other historically minoritized populations. We were seeing issues of stereotyping and bias and how that works on teams and how that affects these students. We've been working for the last few years to develop tools and methods to help students be better at working on teams, and also help our students confront those issues, think about them, and realize they exist.

LL Give some specific examples of the kind of interventions that you've done in your classes and what you've seen as a result.

GP We’ve been developing an asset-based educational approach to getting students to think about their own and others' skills and experiences. We have our students in the beginning of the semester map their own assets to think about what kind of skills, experience, strengths, and backgrounds they bring into our classrooms. Then when they get into project teams, they share those, and start to see how everybody on the team brings a set of skills, and it can break down some of the stereotyping and biases. We also have a Davis Educational Foundation grant that is, in part, helping us expand this work to programs throughout WPI.

LL And, of course, this is going to serve them later in life, because as soon as they leave here they are going to be working in diverse teams out in the real world. It's yet another great set of skills that WPI is helping to equip our students with that will serve them well in long run.

GP Right. We hope that it also gives them some tools and ways of talking and thinking that they can bring into industry where these same types of stereotypes, these same of types of biases exist, and maybe they can start working on changing the culture.

LL Congratulations on the great work. Thanks for contributing to making WPI a more inclusive place.

GP Thank you.

Conversation with the President: Summer 2019

Videographer: Brandon Vincent

First Published in the WPI Journal Summer 2019