The National Academy of Engineering Recognizes WPI

The National Academy of Engineering Recognizes “The WPI Plan” and Four WPI Faculty with the Prestigious 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education 
January 06, 2016

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The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) announced today that Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is being recognized with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education for "The WPI Plan," the university’s revolutionary project-based approach to education; the award also recognizes the leadership and contributions of four faculty leaders who continued the development and growth of opportunities offered by the WPI Plan.

The award is being given "for a project-based engineering curriculum developing leadership, innovative problem solving, interdisciplinary collaboration, and global competencies," and will be shared by Diran Apelian, Alcoa-Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of WPI's Metal Processing Institute; Arthur Heinricher, dean of undergraduate studies; Richard Vaz, dean of interdisciplinary and global studies; and Kristin Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies. It will be presented at WPI on April 15, 2016, by NAE president C. D. Mote Jr.

"This is a proud day for WPI," said President Laurie A. Leshin. "This university is providing an education that empowers students to become the change agents that the world so desperately needs. Our focus is for students to apply theory to practice to achieve impact upon the great problems of our day, and the faculty who have been singled out for this award are outstanding at driving innovation in our curriculum and inspiring greatness from our students and from their colleagues across campus. For the university and those outstanding faculty members to be recognized by the NAE and Bernard Gordon is a tremendous honor."

The Gordon Prize is an annual award recognizing new modalities and experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders. It includes a $500,000 award, half of which will go to the university in "support of the continued development, refinement, and dissemination of [The WPI Plan]."

"I am pleased to recognize the 2016 Gordon Prize recipients and Worcester Polytechnic Institute for their transformational program to develop engineering leaders prepared to tackle society's greatest challenges," said Mote.

Founded in 1865, WPI has been a pioneer in project-based education since 1970 when, building upon its core philosophy of balancing theory and practice in education, the university adopted a revolutionary new undergraduate program known as the WPI Plan. The new approach replaced the traditional, rigidly prescribed engineering curriculum with a flexible and academically challenging program aimed at helping students learn how to learn by synthesizing classroom experience in projects that solve real-world problems.

Today, WPI's approach prepares students by helping them learn how to identify, investigate, and report on potential approaches and solutions to open-ended problems. All students must complete two significant research projects: one is a high-level design or research experience conducted within their major. It challenges them to solve problems that would be typically encountered in their professional discipline. The other project presents an issue at the intersection of science, technology, and culture, and emphasizes the need to learn about how technology affects societal values and structures. It calls for small teams of students to work under the guidance of faculty members from all disciplines to conduct research, using social science methods, directed at a specific problem or need. In addition, all WPI students achieve some depth through the integrated Humanities & Arts Requirement, which allows them to become immersed in art, theatre, music, and other forms of creative expression through a self-selected series of courses. This approach allows students to explore themes of complexity, diversity, and the richness of human experience by examining art/architecture, history, languages, literature, philosophy, or religion – the goal being to build well-rounded, globally aware graduates with superior analytical thinking skills and a handle on the ambiguous problems that will characterize their future careers.

In 1974, WPI launched a global component to its project-based curriculum and now sends approximately 70 percent of its students to more than 45 project centers around the world, which are overseen by the university's Global Projects Program. At these centers, students work in teams to focus on issues such as energy, food, health, and urban sustainability. The Global Projects Program offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in tackling real problems, develop an understanding of other cultures, and see how their lives and work can make a real impact.

Building on the university's legacy for innovation, WPI launched the Great Problems Seminar in 2007. Through this program, first-year students have the option to enroll in a two-course introduction to university-level research and project work that focuses on important problems facing the world. These courses are tied to current events, societal problems, and human needs; they also provide students with the skills they will need to succeed as they go forward with WPI’s project-based curriculum.

Now, more than four decades after the launch of the WPI Plan, the university's approach to education remains distinctive within higher education. It has proven invaluable to alumni and has become a model for other colleges and universities. A recent UMass Donahue Institute study of WPI alumni revealed that project-based learning has significantly enhanced their professional abilities and advancement, their interpersonal and communications skills, and their world views. What’s more, the university has become a valued source for academics and administrators from around the world through the Institute on Project-based Learning, an intensive program designed to help other colleges and universities learn to implement best practices in project-based education on their own campuses. This program is expected to grow significantly, and will use proceeds from this award for its further development.

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About the faculty winners:

• Diran Apelian is Alcoa-Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering at WPI and director of the university’s Metal Processing Institute. From 1990 to 1997, a time when there were many budgetary pressures at WPI, he served as the Institute's provost. In that capacity, he chose to invest in the future by bolstering the infrastructure needed for what is now WPI’s Global Projects Program. He also provided resources for additional project-based learning experiences across the campus. As provost, Apelian led the charge to broaden WPI’s academic programs by supporting faculty to re-engineer Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and ensure a holistic approach to learning. During the last decade, he has played a pivotal role with Kristin Wobbe in transforming the first year experience through the Great Problems Seminar, offering one of the inaugural seminar courses and helping make the program inspiring, fun, and impactful. Today he continues to co-teach the popular course Recycle the World: Recovering Earth's Resources for All Species and for All Time. With Arthur Heinricher, he is one of the architects of the university’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program.

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• Arthur C. Heinricher is a professor of mathematical sciences and dean of undergraduate studies. As dean, he is responsible for the continued assessment and improvement of the university's undergraduate program. He guided the creation of the Great Problems Seminar and has helped develop programs to expand project work throughout more of the academic programs on campus. Heinricher is also a member of the steering committee for the Institute on Project-based Learning. He created WPI’s Test Kitchen, an independent project network that provides support for students seeking opportunities for innovative project work outside their classes. In an effort to feed their innovative and entrepreneurial spirits, Heinricher has also created a means for students to improve upon their academically based projects and to help foster and guide student inventors and innovators toward patents and the commercialization of their ideas. Heinricher has also facilitated the use of WPI student projects as the core of professional development programs for high school and middle school teachers.

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• Richard F. Vaz, dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, oversaw the expansion of WPI’s Global Projects Program from 18 locations in 2006 to 46 locations in 2015, including new programs in Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Europe. In that time, Vaz helped drive an increase in student participation in off-campus project programs, from 40 percent to over 70 percent, and a doubling of faculty participation in those programs. Vaz oversees efforts to evaluate and enhance the quality of WPI’s interdisciplinary research project requirement; from 2012 to 2014, he directed a major study evaluating the long-term impacts of 38 years’ worth of project work by WPI alumni. In 2015, he led the development and delivery of WPI’s first Institute on Project-based Learning, an initiative to help other colleges and universities make progress implementing project-based learning on their campuses.

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• Kristin Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies, was a significant driver of the development and implementation of the Great Problems Seminar, participating on the committee that recommended the introduction of a first year seminar and then in delivering one of the inaugural classes. Later, as associate dean, she oversaw the expansion of the program, more than doubling the number of offerings and hiring faculty dedicated to the program. Wobbe has also led initiatives to develop common learning outcomes and associated rubrics for programmatic assessment. She initiated a summer faculty development program for the Great Problems Seminar instructors in which best practices are shared, common frameworks are developed, and community is forged. She also is a member of the steering committee for the Institute on Project-based Learning.

About The National Academy of Engineering

Founded in 1964, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering is a private, independent, nonprofit institution that provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. Its mission is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshaling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology.