The Great Problems Seminar: Fifteen Years and a New Director
It’s no secret that WPI takes great pride in its distinctive project-based curriculum and its role as a leader in the field. The university infuses project-based learning into all four years of its undergraduate education, starting with the Great Problems Seminar (GPS), an optional two-term course that helps set the stage for first-year students to learn the WPI way of thinking by immersing them into university-level research and introducing them to working in teams to solve problems of global importance.
As the first team-centered project students work on, GPS (initiated under the guidance of John Orr, who was Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the time and is now professor emeritus, and Arthur Heinricher, then Associate Dean for the First-Year Experience and now interim Provost) is intended to help shape their intellectual development by teaching students to collaborate effectively; find and utilize credible sources; prepare and deliver engaging and effective presentations; understand and articulate the differences in experiences of the “great problems” for multiple, diverse perspectives; and describe personal values and those of others as they relate to addressing these great problems.
This year, GPS celebrated its 15th year and a transition in leadership. Sarah Stanlick, assistant professor in Integrative and Global Studies, has succeeded Kristin Wobbe, who served as GPS director for 12 years and is now the director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning.
We sat down with them to talk about the impact of the GPS, its history, and its role in developing WPI leaders of tomorrow.
How does the GPS help set the stage for Project-Based Learning at WPI?
KW: The GPS is a great introduction to project-based learning for the students who participate in it. It not only introduces them to such a ubiquitous method of teaching on our campus, but it also provides them a strong sense of community. These classes help them get to know one another and the faculty quite well.
SS: I think about it in three ways. First, it helps students understand the power of interdisciplinary work and that nothing happens in a vacuum; it helps them understand that this kind of work is going to be a constant element of their WPI experience. Second, they learn about how to work with others toward a major goal—another hallmark of their WPI experience. Third, they have the opportunity to work on projects that matter, and students need to feel inspired and passionate about the topic. The GPS sets students up to feel confident about their work and their scholarly ability. The confidence and sense of belonging this program builds are really inspiring to me.
Does the GPS help students identify a passion they can carry with them into future major project work?
KW: Certainly, some do. But we hope that all the students who participate in a GPS find the experience valuable when they get to their other big projects. And we hope that students learn something about themselves, their world, and their ability to do something to solve problems for others.
SS: I was an EREE (Early Research Experience in E-Term) mentor last year. The student I worked with had taken the “Shelter the World” class and became interested in refugee resettlement issues because of her GPS project work. She found that in addition to having a passion for her major, she really enjoyed the emergency management element of her GPS work. She is going on to obtain a master's in fire protection engineering here at WPI, pulling together all the dots from her previous work and incorporating the passion she found while working on her GPS project to build her future education. And this is only one anecdote of so many we’ve heard.
What do GPS alumni say about the program?
KW: The Anna Chase ’13 story has always resonated with me as a wonderful example of the impact of the GPS. Anna, along with her GPS teammates, were charged with designing a plan to utilize a water filtration unit to provide potable water for a village in Kenya. She and a handful of other students raised money and went to Kenya a year later to see their plan in action. After graduation, Anna went on to work at Hasbro, the toy manufacturer. When I was looking for GPS judges years later, Anna returned to campus with a gift—a working lightsaber with a card that said: “Because the GPS faculty trains so many Jedi knights, I thought you all needed your own light saber.” That light saber became a staple of my open house presentations to prospective students and at the GPS poster sessions. Everyone loves to try it out. (Read more about Anna Chase in the WPI Journal here.) And now it has passed, like the directorship, to Sarah.
SS: The GPS program sets the students up with an experience that is immeasurably helpful for them over the course of their four years here. We also find that students as they go through their experience and get their first jobs, speak about the GPS as a transformative and foundational opportunity that helps set them up for the “real world.” We have data from our alumni survey showing the project work that the students do is seen as valuable for both their IQP and MQP requirements, as well as for future teamwork in their careers. The skill sets are obviously a major piece of the takeaways that alumni of the program report back on. Developing a fresh mindset and new ways of being in the world are other major takeaways as well. We hear a deep appreciation from students who've learned to become more open to diverse opinions and identifying new ways of seeking them out. Developing an engaged global citizen identity and becoming true change agents in the world is another major benefit we continue to hear about from GPS alumni that isn’t a usual result of their disciplinary studies alone.
How does GPS help the faculty who are involved? What is distinctive about the faculty and their disciplines?
KW: As the only course at WPI taught by multiple faculty from different disciplines, GPS gives faculty the opportunity to co-teach, collaborate, and learn with other faculty members outside of their respective disciplines. For many, this is the first time they’ve co-taught and they appreciate the learning from collaboration and finding new ways of looking at the world. WPI GPS faculty also wrote a book together about the program and their experiences called Project-Based Learning in the First Year, Beyond all Expectations. As this is such a unique course, we have leveraged the book as an opportunity to speak at conferences and seminars about integrative learning, co-teaching, projects in the first year, equitable teaming models, global perspectives, open educational resources, and culturally responsive teaching. This has been a great launchpad for professional development, coaching, and gathering the kinds of evidence needed for tenure and promotion cases as well, helping them further their development as teachers.
SS: Co-teaching is certainly one of the major benefits that faculty report as being important for them. They've said they’ve grown in some way that’s beneficial to them—both to their scholarship and their very humanness. They love and take to heart working and thinking along with students as colleagues, while learning from one another and developing a sense of shared purpose. I see the pride in our faculty as they talk about the projects their students have presented at national conferences, the prizes the students have taken home, and the publications they have co-authored and co-presented. It creates a community norm where everyone is thinking together, with cultural and intellectual humility, which can, in turn, create interesting new pathways for scholarship at the university and beyond.
Is there anything else we should know about the impacts of the GPS that may not be obvious?
KW: The program has served as such a major point of pride for us. GPS is recognized as a novel program, and we can talk about it as being a distinctive element of the WPI education. A lot of the work has translated directly into the Center for Project-Based Learning, in addition to work being done to help other institutions build similar programming both nationally and internationally.
SS: Kris leverages the faculty from the GPS to teach in the Center, so their work doesn’t just impact WPI, but travels much farther into many other institutions looking to roll out their own project-based learning curriculum. Our faculty are so focused on making WPI more equitable and inclusive—and intellectually stronger. A few are currently working in a faculty learning community researching ungrading and about what it means when we give powerful feedback that’s critical but supportive, and we are tying this back to how it affects student’s mental health.
Kris, in your years with GPS, what have you enjoyed most in working with students?
KW: The enthusiasm of the students has really amazed me. They are excited by the prospect of working on something tangible and have such energy for making a real difference. The most important change we see from the GPS is in the students themselves: the program is helping them develop and, as an institution, we need to develop students who want to change the world. However, students must listen to the world first. GPS establishes a sense of humility in that it allows students to understand that they don’t have all the answers, but they can co-create answers with people who will let them into their worlds. One project last year on the “Power the World” topic investigated small nuclear reactors as a carbon-free power alternative on campus. The two faculty who led this project took it even further and received a grant for designing facilities that could be built on university campuses to house next-generation nuclear microreactors. (Read more here.) This shows that students can impact what our faculty work on, which is just another wonderful example of this program’s influence.
How did the GPS become a model for first-year programs at other institutions through your work with the Center for Project-Based Learning?
KW: When the Center for Project-Based Learning was started by Rick Vaz, a lot of the thinking was based on the project work and evidence from the MQP and IQP programs. We require all students to participate in these programs, which isn’t very common as it can be a difficult model for other higher ed institutions to adopt. The GPS is a more accessible option for institutions who want to place projects inside courses while still teaching content material. Since we have so much experience from the GPS, we can help other institutions get to where they want to be.
Kris, what would you say your GPS legacy might be?
KW: I think the most valuable thing I did was convincing then-Provost Eric Overstrom to hire faculty whose primary responsibility was to the GPS, though they all also contribute to one or more of our traditional departments. These faculty are brilliant, dedicated teachers and extremely collaborative. It’s not your average faculty role and the passion these faculty members have about making students’ education experiences more inclusive, rigorous, and practical has led to so many innovations in the program. I feel that bringing in that group of wonderful faculty members has made all the difference.
And Sarah, what are you looking forward to as the GPS continues to evolve under your new leadership?
SS: First, I have to say, Kris has left huge shoes to fill. She is so highly respected, so thoughtful, and has done an amazing job in making this program successful by pulling its faculty leadership together and collaborating closely with them. Her leadership has been essential to making the GPS what it is today. It's a mighty task to take that light saber and wield it with the same care, dedication, and creativity that she did.
I’m excited to do my best to live up to her example and the standard she has set. She has been wonderful with her time, bringing me on as an apprentice early on. Many members of the faculty have helped introduce me to the process and make me aware of what was so special about GPS, as well.
I’m interested in growing the program and implementing first year projects for all students and leveraging GPS as a space for students to find their feet as scholars early and feel like WPI prizes and honors them and helps them feel like they belong. I hope to help us articulate a clear and intentional pathway from the first year through IQP and MQP and beyond, incorporating global citizenship mindsets and skill sets. The Great Problems Seminar can help students realize all of that and so much more. The GPS (in addition to IQP and MQP programming) is a big part of why I came to WPI. Here, I never have to explain why programming like this is so important as it is already baked into the WPI ecosystem. I’m so very lucky to have this amazing opportunity to work with students and faculty alike.