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Major and a Mission

Going beyond classroom teaching to foster reflection and thinking in a broader context

December 6, 2016
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The 24 undergraduates in Professor Reinhold Ludwig’s Introduction to RF Circuit Design class follow a curriculum similar to those at most technological universities. Except this term, Ludwig challenges them in a way they probably hadn’t anticipated; posing open-ended questions to them, and making them think creatively about how to apply the knowledge learned in his class.

Reinhold Ludwig

His Entrepreneurial Minded Learning (EML) project presents students with problems that don’t have clear-cut solutions as exams or homework assignments have. A recent EML project tasked the class students to build a prototype interface board for a fictitious company, but in doing that, also to consider the price of components, the needs of the customer, possible environmental impacts, safety, and other variables that are required in industry.

Ludwig puts forth this new project idea as a result of a workshop he took in August—some 50 faculty have taken the workshop in August 2015 and this past August—part of the KEEN entrepreneurial training funded through the Kern Family Foundation. The aim of the program is to train faculty to inspire students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

“Personally, I felt this is a novel way to tell students they have to think in a broader context,” Ludwig says. “Conversely, I have to come up with things that a college-level electrical engineering class normally doesn’t teach. I have to go beyond my classroom teaching and challenge students to do things that are expected in industry.”

“We learned new approaches as to how students can be trained in entrepreneurial thinking so that they can take theoretical knowledge they acquired in class and find innovative practical applications. It was a fascinating experience in August, and it’s making my classes more exciting.” Professor of biomedical engineering Glenn Gaudette—one of the KEEN instructors—explains that the term “entrepreneurial” does not only refer to money, but can also mean adding value. 

Glenn Gaudette

The KEEN training is one component in an initiative the university has embarked on under the Strategic Plan. The initiative, Major and a Mission, encourages students to pursue their academic passions beyond their major and to reflect on the connections among their academic and co-curricular experiences.

Another of the initiative’s major components is the development of an e-Portfolio tool that will encourage students to reflect on their studies and their experiences outside the classroom that influence their course and career choices.

Dean of students Philip Clay and dean of undergraduate studies Art Heinricher, the initiative leads for Major and a Mission, say the thrust of the initiative is to harness students’ reflections and broader thinking to pursue a more intentional path through their time at WPI.

The e-Portfolio will enable students to collect their work and explain its impact. It will be an online tool to help manage their learning and goals, and can be tailored to the students’ interests and particular job search. Reflective learning is a form of mental processing used to fulfill a purpose or to achieve an anticipated outcome. It is applied to gain a better understanding of relatively complicated or unstructured ideas.

And along those lines, the KEEN training helps students identify opportunities to apply the technical knowledge they learn in class, Gaudette notes. “We have one of the best project-based curriculums in the country,” he says. “What we’re trying to focus on with KEEN is, how do we take it to the next level?

Philip Clay

 “… We have a lot of faculty doing great research,” he adds. “They care about the education they are giving students. How can they make them curious and know more about making connections? If we can get students thinking about what they want to do, and make them passionate when they get here, they will be more interested and retain more information, and have greater impact.”

Clay maintains that students who are reflective of their experiences can make a more informed career choice than those who simply concentrate on checking off the academic requirements and then go about choosing a career path.

“We’re creating reflection opportunities,” says Clay. “That helps them articulate their WPI experiences both inside and outside the classroom. The term system here is rigorous. They can fall into a box-checking mentality. There isn’t much time for reflection. This tool gives them a way to capture those experiences, and a way to tell their story.”

“Students are more than their major,” adds Heinricher.  “And the goal of Major and a Mission is to allow students to explore and discover both their major and the things that they are passionate about.”

Ludwig recalls that there was anxiety on the part of some students, but those who embraced the challenge gradually “wrapped their minds around it,” and as a result, interact with him and ask far more questions than before.

“It’s more intensive than they thought, but you see them thinking. It’s gratifying,” he says. “Most took up the challenge. And it pushed me as a faculty member to make my course more applied by incorporating learning objectives (like the EML projects) that are open-ended; it fosters students to think about industrially relevant solutions. The best students surprise you with incredibly creative approaches. They see a bigger picture coming out of this experience.”

Art Heinricher

In addressing the bigger picture, reflective learning is key, and developing an e-Portfolio software tool will play a major role in getting students to reflect on all their undergraduate experiences and recognize how they collectively guide their growth and choices. 

Clay points out that currently students have a transcript and a resume to sum up their university years, but nothing that addresses their leadership skills, co-curricular interests, membership in a fraternity, or project work experience.

“The real key is helping to think about their paths, and how their courses are connected to that,” adds Heinricher. “Research shows that they learn better when they reflect on what they’re learning.”

Toward that end, assistant dean of students Emily Perlow has been working with a university-wide committee to review vendors and have students try out their products. The value of reflective learning shows in students’ ability to process their experiences, and in helping them understand how their course choices will match their passions.

“This has brought us to the place where we want to know how students think about all their experiences; academically and co-curricularly, their interests, and how they influence their career choices,” she says.

Emily Perlow

Women and underrepresented students show a greater tendency to leave STEM early because they don’t see a connection between their coursework and their passion, she says. One of the great opportunities the e-Portfolio offers is to help students make those connections, Perlow points out.

“It’s a tool to capture the meaning-making occurring through their education,” she says. “It could be across courses, institutionally, or co-curricularly. They could capture that thought process … it’s important that we involve a lot of stakeholders who might use it.”

The committee worked with some e-Portfolio vendors over the spring and summer, put out an RFP, and selected three for demos. Two were then given to some students to try out. The plan is to pilot through next summer and do a full launch next fall. It is hoped that by the 2018-­19 academic year, 20 percent of undergrad students will be using e-Portfolio.

In addition to these efforts to broaden students’ thinking, WPI hired Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fellow Curtis Abel, who is piloting a “Proto-Foisie” space in the ground floor of Gordon Library.

Among the milestones to be met:

• Launch a Sophomore Reentry Program that allows undergraduates to identify their strengths, values, passions, and professional aspirations and connect them deliberately with the academic skills and experiences that will enable them to pursue and realize these aspirations effectively and meaningfully in their professional life.

• Graduate more NAE Grand Challenge Scholars than any other university, and create a Grand Challenge Scholars Program for non-engineering students at WPI.

• Identify curricular and co-curricular opportunities to develop Global Competency.

- By Martin Luttrell