bearded man leans forward talking to a woman while people in background take notes during a session at the Institute on Project-Based Learning

Lots to Celebrate as Institute on Project-Based Learning Turns 10

Demand for WPI’s distinctive educational model continues to grow at universities and colleges across the country
LISTEN 10:25
April 25, 2024

The Institute on Project-Based Learning turns 10 this summer, offering the WPI community an opportunity to celebrate the university’s expertise in this area. 

To fully appreciate this milestone, though, we need some context. How did WPI become an internationally recognized expert in project-based learning (PBL)? And why is our approach—first introduced more than 50 years ago—not only still relevant but also necessary today?

A Bold New Vision

Although WPI was founded on the principles of theory and practice, more than a century passed before the practice part fully took root. In 1970, with enrollment slowing, costs rising, and new competition from engineering programs at public universities, WPI leadership took a huge leap of faith: Acknowledging that rote learning was boring and ineffective, it threw out the traditional engineering-centric curriculum and created an approach that was altogether new for both WPI and the world.


two men wearing lanyards talk during a conference work session

More than 1,000 participants from 142 schools in 9 countries have
attended the Institute since 2015.

“The vision was that we needed to educate scientists and engineers who would think deeply about the human and social implications of their work,” says Rick Vaz, former dean of WPI’s Interdisciplinary & Global Studies Division [now The Global School] and founder of the Center for Project-Based Learning

Two hallmarks of today’s distinctive WPI education—the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) and Major Qualifying Project (MQP)—stood at the heart of that vision, which came to be known as the WPI Plan

“The folks who created the WPI Plan understood that if you are going to do an engineering job out in the world, you need to think about the people who are going to be affected by and using what you’re designing,” Vaz says. 

As the Plan was phased into the curriculum throughout the 1970s, more and more students experienced the infusion of projects into their education. When these students then landed jobs in a range of STEM fields, employers noticed that WPI graduates were uniquely prepared to think outside the box and take on leadership roles.

The higher ed world noticed, too. By the early 2000s, faculty and administrators at other colleges and universities were requesting workshops from WPI to learn about our approach to project-based learning. 

Kris Wobbe
“[D]ealing with ambiguity, learning how to learn, and developing a sense of agency prepares students to handle open-ended challenging situations. In today’s world, that may be the best thing higher ed can provide students.
  • Kris Wobbe
  • Director of the Center for Project-Based Learning

In the summer of 2015, support from the American Association of Colleges and Universities helped WPI launch the Institute on Project-Based Learning, a three-day program for teams from other colleges and universities. 

“To cover our costs, we needed eight or ten teams to apply. We imagined STEM-based institutions similar in size to WPI. That is not at all what happened,” recalls Vaz. “We wound up with 32 applications, from every shape and size institution you can imagine—community colleges, huge research universities, regional colleges, liberal arts schools. We had applications from institutions across the U.S., as well as from Saudi Arabia and India.”

That institutional and geographic diversity continues today. Small teams of administrators and faculty attend the Institute to develop customized plans for designing, implementing, or expanding some aspect of project-based learning on their campus. 

Groups participate in basic team-building exercises; attend workshops on such topics as facilitating equity and inclusion in PBL and faculty development related to PBL; and work directly with a WPI faculty coach to fine-tune their plan. In a way, what teams experience at the Institute is a condensed version of all project-based learning at WPI.

Homegrown Expertise

It’s fitting, then, that those teaching most of the workshops and serving as coaches are WPI faculty. Not only do they advise WPI students day in and day out on projects; some also conduct project-related research.

Elisabeth Stoddard, associate professor of teaching in the Department of Integrative and Global Studies, has studied the effects of biases on team dynamics and the importance of using culturally diverse course materials and teaching methods when leading student projects. She has taught several Institute workshops on these topics and on others. She also draws from her experience advising IQP, MQP, and Great Problems Seminar (GPS) teams to coach at the Institute. 


student looks at computer model of a garden design

Hands-on projects teach students to think, learn, and do independently.

Four students look at and discuss a blueprint for a garden design

  Here, students work on an IQP in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Inevitably, Stoddard says, she ends up learning a lot from Institute participants, too. “The Institute gives faculty on both ends a moment to stop and reflect with others who have similar passions. It’s a great opportunity for professional growth, including my own.”

From the start, Institute organizers relied on WPI faculty expertise, seeing “it as a way for WPI to have an impact on and become better known in the world of higher education,” Vaz says.

The arrangement inevitably provides outside faculty and administrators with details from the recipe for WPI’s secret PBL sauce. But Kris Wobbe, director of the Center for Project-Based Learning, is happy to do so because she recognizes the universality of WPI’s method. 

Plus, she notes, “No other institution wants to take on this level of intensity, with two giant required projects that drive everything else in the curriculum. Instead, the focus at the Institute is on how to help faculty address experiential, ambiguous project-based learning and support student teams.”

The IQP—one of those giant required projects Wobbe refers to—and the GPS each pair social science or humanities faculty with a STEM professor. It’s an important part of what makes WPI a truly unique STEM school. What’s more, that interdisciplinary nature of WPI’s projects is what makes our approach to PBL still so relevant more than 50 years after the Plan was first introduced.

“The problems of the world do not respect academic disciplinary boundaries,” says Vaz.

Preparing for Tomorrow

To be sure, world problems seem to be getting more complex every day. At the same time, each of us can easily access more information than we could ever possibly use.

“Teaching college students facts is no longer the most useful thing,” says Wobbe. “But dealing with ambiguity, learning how to learn, and developing a sense of agency prepares students to handle open-ended challenging situations. In today’s world, that may be the best thing higher ed can provide students.”

Data show that those lessons continue having an impact on WPI alumni long after they graduate.

Rick Vaz
The problems of the world do not respect academic disciplinary boundaries.
  • Rick Vaz
  • Founder of the Center for Project-Based Learning

In a 2021 survey, four decades of WPI graduates overwhelmingly said they feel confident handling unexpected challenges because the immersive projects they did in their coursework required them to consider situations from multiple perspectives and adjust their next steps accordingly. With 65 percent of alumni reporting projects in at least half their undergraduate courses, students get multiple opportunities to practice these skills. 

“Most students go through a lifetime of teacher-centered education. But project-based learning flips that model,” says Kimberly LeChasseur, senior research and evaluation associate at the Center for Project-Based Learning. “The first time you’re asked to do something in a student-centered way, some students resist, wondering why the instructor isn’t telling them the right way to solve the problem. With practice they see they’re capable of doing hard things without someone removing the obstacles and disruptions.”

Recent participants at the Institute also seem to be realizing the importance of offering students multiple project experiences, Wobbe says. Most schools, however, are trying to incorporate projects into specific courses or programs, rather than weave it into every aspect of the academic culture, as WPI does. 

Wobbe agrees with Vaz that working with teams from other colleges and universities at the Institute strengthens WPI’s reputation. But it’s also deeply personal for her. 

“The world needs more students than WPI could ever educate to come to grips with the open-ended, ambiguous, complicated, interdisciplinary problems we face,” she says. “So I consider it part of my moral obligation to help more schools provide the same kinds of experiences to their students.”

This year’s Institute will be held June 20–22. Representatives from eight schools plan to attend.