WPI Launches Sixth Year of Its Innovative First-Year Great Problems Seminars With Great Changes

Changes Include a Doubling of the Number of Seminars Offered, a 76 Percent Growth in Enrollment, and the Additions of Rural Entrepreneurship Expert Martin Burt and Urban Planning and Biology Expert Derren Rosbach
August 30, 2012

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) kicked off the sixth year of its Great Problems Seminars yesterday with an address to first year students by Forbes science journalist Matthew Herper, whose presentation was titled "How Technologists Can Save Lives and Change the World–And What’s Stopping Them."

The university launched the Great Problems Seminars (GPS) in 2007 as a new approach to WPI's first year experience. The seminars focus on global problems–for example, in the areas of food, energy, health, and engineering for sustainability–rather than on disciplines, departments, or majors. The Great Problems Seminars provide students with important early exposure to WPI's project-based curriculum and help them develop the skills necessary for success in their future project work.

This year, with the aid of a $150,000 gift from Fred Molinari '63 and $250,000 from the Davis Educational Foundation, the GPS is expanding from four to eight seminars. A new seminar called "The World's Water," which explores the looming water crisis from social, technological, and ecological perspectives, will be offered this fall, while GPS seminars will be offered in the spring for the first time this year. The spring seminars, both new, are called "Educate the World" and "Living on the Edge" ("Living on the Edge" addresses the balance between the world's needs and its resources). There will be room for a maximum of 450 students in this year's GPS program; last year the program enrolled 255 students, while another 130 student were placed on a waiting list.

"WPI continues to transform and improve our educational approach so that our students are best prepared to help solve some of our world's great problems," said Kristin Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies. "The Great Problems Seminars not only give our students a head start on their major projects, but they often develop passion and career paths. It is a joy to watch this program expand in both size and scope, and I look forward to providing more and better opportunities for our first year students to enrich both their academic experiences, and their lives."

The GPS program will also benefit from the expertise of Martin Burt of Paraguay, founding chief executive officer and chairman of Fundación Paraguaya, a social enterprise that promotes urban and rural entrepreneurship in Paraguay. He is also co-founder and executive director of Teach a Man to Fish, an international network of schools and educational programs committed to sustainable approaches to tackling rural poverty. Burt, who has been asked to participate in his country's new government, will work to promote four projects by WPI students that will take place in Paraguay. After appearing at the United Nations in New York, he will return to WPI in October for a week, and again in January for the start of the spring GPS program to speak with students about social entrepreneurship.

Students will also benefit from the addition of Derren Rosbach, who joined the GPS team this year as an assistant teaching professor. Rosbach's background is in urban planning and biology. He joined the WPI faculty after serving for two years as a visiting assistant professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, where he also completed his doctorate in planning governance and globalization and earned a graduate certificate in nonprofit management. He will teach "The World's Water" with Sharon Wulf, adjunct professor in the School of Business.

Keeping true to the university's motto, "Theory and Practice," WPI's curriculum is project-based. The GPS program prepares first year students for their required WPI projects: the Interactive Qualifying Project, in which they tackle societal issues related to science and technology, and the Major Qualifying Project, in which they work in teams to address a problem in their major field. The projects give students the opportunity to apply knowledge acquired in the classroom and laboratory to solve important real-world problems. Many student complete projects at over 30 off-campus project centers located on five continents.