Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a recognized national leader in project-based learning, is hosting an intensive program this week to share its nearly half-century of experience and provide guidance to other colleges and universities looking to engage students in project-based learning at their own institutions.
The 2015 Institute on Project-based Learning, a first-of-its-kind program, will run from Thursday through Saturday on WPI’s campus. Offered in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the institute has experienced high demand, with many colleges and universities actively seeking innovative ways to engage students in powerful learning experiences that not only prepare them for the real world, but have demonstrated value for graduates in the job market.
While WPI received applications from 38 institutions, it was able to admit teams from 18 local, national, and international colleges and universities. The 17 teams in attendance will work toward self-defined goals to promote project-based learning on their own campuses by partaking in interactive group activities as well as workshops centered on such subjects as faculty development, integrating project-based learning into STEM courses, and partnering with external organizations for project-based learning.
"Project-based learning isn’t just an educational tool, it fundamentally enhances the potential of knowledge to empower students to become the leaders and impactful change agents our world needs to meet the challenges we face," said WPI President Laurie A. Leshin. "WPI is so passionate about this approach to teaching and learning that we want to share our expertise and deep experience to help other academic institutions advance project-based learning on their own campuses in ways that make sense to them."
Under the direction of Richard F. Vaz, dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, 20 WPI faculty and staff members will guide educators in developing strategies for integrating project-based learning into their curricula.
The participants include educators from liberal arts, technical, and community colleges; state universities; and institutions of higher education in India and Saudi Arabia.
WPI was among the first universities in the United States to incorporate project-based learning in its undergraduate curriculum. In 1970, it launched the WPI Plan, an approach to learning that requires students to apply acquired skills and abilities to solve real-world problems as they complete two major projects. In the first, the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), students, often in small teams, work under the guidance of faculty advisors to identify and develop recommended solutions to problems that lie at the intersection of science, technology, and societal issues and needs. The second, the Major Qualifying Project (MQP), requires students to address and solve real-world, professional-level problems in their major discipline.
"Since 1970, we've seen students rise to the occasion time after time, solving real-world problems with creative solutions, learning to work in a professional environment and to apply what they’ve learned in school," said Arthur Heinricher, WPI's dean of undergraduate studies. "This greatly benefits the development of our students as professionals who forge change and improvements in the world around them. It is the paramount reason why we are hosting this institute for other schools."
WPI launched a global component to its project-based curriculum in 1974 and now sends students to 40 project centers around the world, where they work in teams on their required projects under faculty direction to focus on issues such as energy, food, health, and urban sustainability. A recent WPI study revealed project-based learning has significantly impacted the professional abilities, interpersonal and communications skills, and professional advancement of alumni, and has also enhanced their world views.
"This study confirmed what we have believed for decades," said Vaz, "that giving students a social context in which they can apply what they have learned has enormous benefit to their personal and professional lives."