series of three photos showing college students working on hands-on projects

WPI Alumni Survey Confirms Value of Project-Based Learning in Higher Education

New data show Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s pioneering hands-on curriculum prepares grads for lifelong professional and personal success
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June 7, 2024

Worcester, Mass. – More than fifty years after Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) revolutionized its undergraduate engineering education, data from a recent alumni survey prove that working on multiple hands-on projects throughout a student’s college career equips them with valuable skills that contribute to their personal and professional success and resilience for years to come. These data provide further evidence to support WPI’s unparalleled approach to project-based learning. 

Responses from more than 2,200 alumni who graduated from WPI between 1980 and 2019 confirm that required experiential learning opportunities, whether completed on or off campus, prime students to develop the leadership, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills that are in high demand in today’s workplaces, communities, and everyday life. 

“WPI’s transformative project-based learning model provides an experience that prepares students to work as a team, think critically, communicate, collaborate, see the world from different cultural perspectives, and be motivated to address problems that truly matter to society,” says WPI President Grace J. Wang. “Technological advances, in many ways, have elevated the importance of these skills. WPI’s unique education equips students to be knowledge-ready, job-ready, and future career-ready.”

President Grace J. Wang
WPI’s unique education equips students to be knowledge-ready, job-ready, and future career-ready.
  • President Grace J. Wang

Ninety-four percent of survey respondents said their formal project experience at WPI enhanced their ability to develop ideas. In addition, 93 percent said it enhanced their ability to effectively function on a team, and 88 percent said their projects contributed to the development of a stronger personal character.

“Projects give students experience dealing with ambiguity, learning how to learn, and developing a sense of agency to handle open-ended challenging situations. In today’s world, that may be the best thing higher ed can provide students,” says Kris Wobbe, director of the Center for Project-Based Learning at WPI. 

These benefits from project-based learning position students well for success in the current job market. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, employers today are looking to hire candidates who excel in skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, ethical judgment, and applying knowledge in real-world settings.

These are exactly the skills that WPI alumni say they learned through the hands-on projects they participated in as undergraduate students. A full 95 percent of respondents said their project experience at WPI prepared them for their current career and nearly all respondents also reported feeling a sense of professional satisfaction.

Project-based learning has been woven into the fabric of WPI’s curriculum since 1970. That’s when the university’s leaders threw out the traditional lecture-heavy curriculum and replaced it with a model prioritizing active, hands-on learning, known as the WPI Plan.

Today, every undergraduate must complete three major projects to graduate: an interdisciplinary team project (Interactive Qualifying Project); a culminating project in their major field of study (Major Qualifying Project); and the Humanities and Arts Requirement, which is the equivalent of a minor in the humanities or the arts and includes a seminar or practicum in a chosen focus area. For the interdisciplinary project, students explore a real-life problem that connects science, engineering, and technology to society. For the major project, students produce a professional-level design or research study. 

Kris Wobbe
Projects give students experience dealing with ambiguity, learning how to learn, and developing a sense of agency to handle open-ended challenging situations. In today’s world, that may be the best thing higher ed can provide students.
  • Kris Wobbe
  • Director of the Center for Project-Based Learning

“WPI’s highly distinctive curriculum builds a scaffold of multiple research projects throughout a student’s journey,” says Arthur Heinricher, WPI’s interim senior vice president and provost. “Project work at WPI challenges students to demonstrate that they can actually use, and extend, what they are learning in the classroom. Projects make learning deep, real, and connected to purpose. Indeed, project-based learning is a fundamental survival skill for the future our graduates will build and live in.”

Students can do any of their required projects at one of WPI’s more than 50 project centers across six continents. To help ensure that all students have equitable access to off-campus experiences, WPI’s Global Projects Program offers every undergraduate a Global Scholarship of up to $5,000 for related expenses. This support is one reason why nearly 85 percent of WPI students participate in an off-campus project during their undergraduate experience. 

Many students also work on smaller-scale solo and group projects throughout their time at WPI: Almost two-thirds of alumni report having projects in at least half of their undergraduate courses, and survey data show that this repeated exposure to hands-on learning and problem-solving is key to the success WPI alumni find after graduating.

“Most students go through a lifetime of teacher-centered education. But project-based learning flips that model,” says Kimberly LeChasseur, senior research and evaluation associate at WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning. “The first time you’re asked to do something in a student-centered way, some students resist, wondering why the instructor isn’t telling them the right way to solve the problem. With practice they see they’re capable of doing hard things without someone removing the obstacles and disruptions.”

Of course, confidence in one’s ability to accomplish difficult tasks also has implications far beyond the workplace: 89 percent of survey respondents said projects enhanced their ability to effectively manage interpersonal dynamics and 88 percent said projects improved their ability to view issues from several different perspectives.

series of six graphics reflecting key findings from WPI alumni survey

“Through projects, students strengthen skills such as communication, self-efficacy, and cross-cultural understanding,” says Wobbe. “These project experiences allow students to grow as professionals and as people, ensuring they graduate from WPI with different perspectives than when they began.”

While alumni in every demographic category reported personal and professional gains resulting from project-based learning, data show that women in particular benefit from WPI’s approach: 87 percent of survey respondents who identify as women reported that project work helped them feel that their own ideas were valuable.

“Very generally speaking, men come in already believing they’re good at math and seeing themselves as engineers, whereas women rate themselves lower than their actual skills,” says LeChasseur. “With a hands-on project students get to actually do the thing, so they see that they are capable of doing it. This helps women see themselves in the world as engineers.”

With four decades of WPI graduates participating in the survey—ranging from alumni approaching retirement to young professionals—it’s clear that the benefits of project-based learning are both long-lasting and timeless. 

That timelessness is crucial in today’s world. With rapidly changing technology and mounting global uncertainty, students are graduating from college with few, if any, guarantees. The jobs they’ll have 10 years from now might not even exist yet. 

“WPI’s rigorous experiential learning approach ensures students are not only career ready, but also career resilient,” says Wobbe. “The multiple projects our students work on equip them with technical skills and mindsets to adapt to changes in the rapidly evolving fields of science and technology.” 

In the Words of Alums

“I was fundamentally transformed during my time at WPI. I can think of no other life event that could have done as much.”

—WPI Alumnus ’16, Mechanical Engineering

In the Words of Alums

“These projects really give you a taste of what you are expected to do at work: independent work, check-ins with your boss, piecing things together, and figuring out how to communicate know-how, questions, thoughts, and reflections to others, and to be a teammate and/or leader.” 

—WPI Alumnus ’99, Biology and Biotechnology

In the Words of Alums

“[Project-Based Learning] is the ‘crown jewel’ of the WPI undergraduate education experience and is an excellent experience preparation for the working world after college.” 

—WPI Alumnus ’95, Environmental Engineering

In the Words of Alums

“The project program was the primary reason I chose WPI. I had incredible opportunities there that I couldn’t have had at other schools. The real world is project-based, so I think it’s extremely valuable experience.” 

—WPI Alumnus ’04, Electrical & Computer Engineering