The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has named Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) a Grand Challenge Scholars School in recognition of the university’s unique approach to educating and empowering students to research and implement sustainable solutions to significant challenges facing society. The Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) is designed to prepare students to address the 14 Grand Engineering Challenges proposed by the NAE, which relate to global needs in food, clean water, energy, healthcare, the environment, education, and more.
“This is truly an exciting moment for WPI,” said President Laurie Leshin. “The NAE’s Grand Challenges program aligns well with WPI’s longstanding commitment to giving students the skills and experience they need to address pressing societal issues that threaten people, the planet, and the future. We are delighted to work with NAE to recruit students into the Grand Challenge Scholars Program and further inspire them to effect real change in their world.”
WPI’s Grand Challenges Scholars will actively engage in research and problem solving associated with a selected Grand Challenge; explore interdisciplinary coursework; gain an international perspective; engage in entrepreneurship; and give back to the community through hands-on projects.
“WPI is well positioned to participate in the Grand Challenge Scholars Program,” said Winston ‘Wole’ Soboyejo, Bernard M. Gordon Dean of Engineering at WPI. “The key components of the program—research, interdisciplinary work, global experience, and entrepreneurship—align with the university’s curriculum and our dedication to providing the world with capable and engaged problem solvers.”
WPI expects to have 30-40 students participate in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program in the first year, ultimately expanding to 100 students per year.
Problem solving through project-based learning has been at the core of the WPI curriculum since 1970, when the university adopted a revolutionary new undergraduate program known as the WPI Plan. The new approach balanced theory and practice and 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. In 2016 the NAE recognized WPI and the WPI Plan with the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.
WPI’s approach to education remains distinctive within higher education. All WPI 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 must complete the Humanities and Arts Requirement, through which they pursue depth and breadth in art, theatre, music, and other forms of creative expression through a self-selected series of courses and a capstone seminar or practicum. 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.
The project-based approach to education is a rigorous one. To help set the stage, first year students are encouraged to consider their role as global problem solvers through the Great Problems Seminar (GPS), a program that introduces students to university-level research and project work. The GPS 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.
Because WPI graduates will be called upon to solve important and pressing problems around the world, the university has been active in the global learning community for more than 40 years. Today, through its Global Projects Program, WPI operates more than 40 residential project centers around the world, where students work in teams to focus on issues such as energy, food, health, and urban sustainability. The 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. More than 70 percent of WPI’s students participate in off-campus project centers.
This approach 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 Center for 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.
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.