National Academy of Engineering Presents 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize to Worcester Polytechnic Institute Today

The “WPI Plan” and Four Faculty Are Recognized with Prestigious Award for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education; Events Include a Panel Discussion Focused on Engineering Education
April 15, 2016

Today the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) will present Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education in a formal ceremony at 3:30 pm in Alden Memorial on the WPI campus. The prestigious award, given to WPI "for a project-based engineering curriculum developing leadership, innovative problem solving, interdisciplinary collaboration, and global competencies," is being presented by NAE president C. D. Mote, Jr.

Announced in January, the Gordon Prize honors the "WPI Plan," a revolutionary project-based approach to higher education, and also recognizes the leadership and contributions of four faculty members who continue the development and growth of opportunities offered by the WPI Plan: 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.

Left to right, Gordon Prize panelists C. D. Mote, Jr., Lynn Pasquerella, and Mark Russell

"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.

The award ceremony will be preceded at 2:30 pm by a panel presentation, "Perspectives in Engineering Education: A Conversation," moderated by WPI President Laurie A. Leshin. The distinguished panelists are:

  • C. D. Mote, Jr., president of the National Academy of Engineering and Regents' Professor on leave from the University of Maryland, College Park.
  • Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College and president-elect of the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Pasquerella is a philosopher and ethicist who has combined teaching and scholarship with civic engagement.
  • Mark Russell, Raytheon Company's vice president of corporate Engineering, Technology and Mission Assurance. Russell has been honored as a Fellow by both the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
  • Richard Vaz

The panel discussion and award presentation will be followed by a reception in Alden Memorial beginning at 4:30 pm. Honored guests include Bernard M. Gordon, Chairman of BMG Charitable Trust, and his wife, Sophia; Gordon Prize Committee Chair Dr. John C. Wall, retired vice president and CTO of Cummins, Inc.; Harriette L. Chandler, Massachusetts state senator (1st district, Worcester); and Gladys Rodriquez, Senior District Representative from the Office of Congressman James P. McGovern.

The day's events are sponsored by Raytheon, a longtime corporate partner and supporter of numerous programs at WPI. "Raytheon has been fortunate to have been able to participate in, support, and witness the impact that the university's innovative project-based learning has had on a generation of students—and on the tech landscape itself," said Russell. "We’re delighted to see our colleagues and partners at WPI recognized with this distinctive honor."

The NAE awards the Gordon Prize annually to recognize new modalities and experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders. It includes a $500,000 award, half of which will go the four faculty members. The university will invest $250,000 of the prize purse in the Center for Project-Based Learning, which builds upon the university's 45 years of leadership in this impactful form of education, as well as the overwhelming success of the intensive four-day Institute on Project-based Learning, which WPI launched in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in 2015. The Center for Project-Based Learning deepens the level of support that WPI provides to colleges and universities who are looking to implement project-based learning on their own campuses. One of the faculty prize recipients, Richard Vaz, leads the new center.

"It is a tremendous honor for WPI to be recognized by the National Academy of Engineering and Bernard Gordon; 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," said President Leshin. "This award is especially meaningful because it recognizes WPI for providing an education that empowers students by exposing them not only to the great problems of our day, but also with real-world experiences that challenge them to be strong leaders, collaborators, and change agents. The university will pay the Gordon Prize forward through the Center for Project-Based Learning—we will help other academic institutions by sharing best practices and providing tools and customized guidance and support so that this type of education can take hold within varied curriculums. Our goal is to enable more students to have access to an educational approach that can truly change lives and the world."

About the WPI Plan

Since 1970, project-based learning has been the core of WPI's undergraduate curriculum. Known as the "WPI Plan," this approach builds upon WPI’s core philosophy of balancing theory and practice in education. The WPI Plan is a flexible and academically rigorous program that synthesizes classroom experience with projects that challenge students within important professional and social contexts. Throughout their four years at WPI, students work closely with faculty—and each other—on projects that allow them to apply their acquired skills, knowledge, and abilities to develop solutions for authentic, open-ended, real-world problems—both within their own communities and in communities around the globe, through WPI's 45 off-campus project centers. Working within their major and in general education, the WPI Plan allows students to master critical thinking, sharpen research skills, fine-tune written and oral communication skills, and connect their learning to local and global issues.

More than four decades after the launch of the WPI Plan, the university's approach to education remains powerfully effective. 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. The program, which also remains distinctive within higher education, has become a model for other colleges and universities, largely thanks to market demand for schools to better prepare students for the real world and the job market.

About the faculty winners:

Diran Apelian is the 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, Apelian 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.

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. He 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. He has also facilitated the use of WPI student projects as the core of professional development programs for high school and middle school teachers.

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, he 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.

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 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.

The Gordon Prize, first awarded in 2001, is named for Bernard M. Gordon, who is "considered the 'father of analog to digital conversion' for his inventions and contributions to signal translation, medical tomography and other high-precision instrumentation," according to the NAE.