GPS Grant

Great Problems Seminar Gets a Great Grant
March 25, 2014

One day last year as assistant professor Geoff Pfeifer was listening to his car radio, a light bulb went off.

As a result, WPI Great Problems Seminar (GPS) students have a unique learning opportunity to look forward to, with help from assistant professor Marja Bakermans, an investigative reporter, and a newly announced Teaching Innovation Grant.

Pieces Come Together

Pfeifer, who teaches philosophy, happened to be listening to a National Public Radio investigative series on beach erosion by Beth Daley that day.

Daley is a former Boston Globe environmental reporter, is the director of partnerships at New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Pfeifer was struck by the depth of her research and multifaceted nature of her work. “[She] did a great job of looking at problems from variety of perspectives, including environmental and social,” he says.

With this in mind, Pfeifer and Bakermans, a biology instructor—who together run the GPS on climate change and biodiversity—applied for the internal grant. Their grant application for “Engaging GPS Students with Investigative Reporting and Multimedia Projects,” proposed bringing Daley, the investigative reporter, to WPI to host a workshop on how to cover the scientific, social, and technological aspects of an environmental topic.

The $6,000 grant was approved, and Daley will come to WPI this fall, says Pfeifer.

“Students value and need to hear the perspectives of experts in the field because it provides a sense of authenticity to their course content and connects them to real-world problem solving,” Bakermans says.

While technology, says Pfeifer, is already used heavily in GPS courses, this particular module will demonstrate to students how to use multimedia to communicate all the various aspects of a complex problem. The grant criteria calls for instructional approaches to use technology as a central part of learning; to take advantages of efficiencies that can be realized through the use of technology for teaching; and evaluating the impact of new instructional approaches.

“How students come to view that … will be interesting [to see],” he says.

Pfeifer says he and Bakermans will design the climate change and biodiversity investigative reporting learning module for the two GPS terms over the summer.

The first term will focus on content delivery and universal skills like writing, public speaking, and working collaboratively, Pfeifer says. In the second term, students pick topics and break off into groups to create a project report and poster presentation.

“We teach complex, open-ended problems around these topics,” Pfeifer says. For instance, past climate change and biodiversity GPS projects have explored subjects such as artificial light and its effects on turtle hatchlings; sustaining the cranberry industry; and composting on campus.

Though Daley is only slated to come for the workshop portion, guest speakers in GPS courses often get so excited about the subject matter that the sometimes stay longer, Pfeifer says.

Same Problem, Different Angle

The fact that Pfeifer, who is a philosophy instructor, and Bakermans, who is a biology instructor, lead this seminar is by design, says Pfeifer, as it is with all GPS courses. “The idea is that we come together and teach from our perspective. It’s a multidisplinary approach to understand the social aspects, politics, et cetera,” of any given world problem, says Pfeifer.

Bakermans agrees. “Investigative reporting can improve a number of the learning objectives of the Great Problems Seminar courses, including … identifying and evaluating questions and solutions,” she says. “These critical thinking skills will allow students to explore multiple angles of a story, teach each other, and have some fun.”