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GPS Turns 10

September 1, 2016
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Starting with Impact

WPI’s innovative, big-picture, first-year learning process known as the Great Problems Seminar is 10 years old.

It’s been a decade of ushering new students through the theoretical and into the practical.

A decade of introducing them to the complexity of global problems, group collaborations, and WPI’s hands-on, project-based problem solving aimed at improving the world around us.

“It really forces you to stretch your mind to the social context of engineering,” says Sam Flibbert ’16 in a GPS presentation video. “The ethics of fair trade, examinations of energy sources, and climate change considerations are all part of GPS.”

“Our team started as total strangers,” says Heather Lavoie ’16 in a video interview. “It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”

The issues considered in GPS are human, complex, and relevant, such as food sustainability, says Kris Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies, and an inaugural GPS instructor.

“The projects are theoretical, but many students take it well beyond that, especially when the topic sparks a passion. We’ve had students get provisional patents for project work, design a fundraiser to build two wells in Africa … and get unserved food in the dining hall to a local shelter.”

Wobbe personally finds the GPS invigorating on at least two fronts: there is no shortage of topics to fold into the curriculum, and she collaborates with instructors in disciplines she normally never would (such as management and English literature) in presenting the seminar. Team teaching, she says, allows her to model to the students how people with differing perspectives and training each provide information and knowledge necessary for the development of effective solutions.

Eric Hahn ’80 and Fred Molinari ’63 helped ensure the launch and subsequent expansion of the GPS. Their generosity and vision has had a significant positive impact on countless WPI students and alumni.

A partner in a high-tech startup investment firm, Hahn gave $100,000 to get GPS off the ground in the 2006–07 academic year and has generously supported the program since then. “Years ago, I gave the WPI Commencement address,” he says. “I challenged the graduates to use the rare and valuable gift of a college education to help figure out our collective future.  I saw GPS as a way to make that challenge more actionable.”

Molinari gifted $150,000 to fund visiting scholars for the GPS program. He wishes the GPS approach had been around when he was at WPI. “I had no idea what an engineer did,” he says. “With physics, you would get so into the bowels of what you were doing with equations—how it related to big problems was unfathomable. It makes so much sense to help kids understand where they come in.”