General Education & the First Year Experience

In the fall of 2004, Commission A1 was appointed and charged with examining both General Education and the First Year Experience at WPI. To date, the Commission has focused its energies on the First Year—not because the topic is more important than General Education, but rather because the First Year sets the tone and culture for the entire undergraduate experience at WPI and the stage for lifelong learning.

Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement reveal that First Year students at WPI are less academically engaged than similar students at peer institutions. Furthermore, there is no curricular strategy to ensure that First Year students will make progress toward the University’s Undergraduate Learning Outcomes. The goal of this Commission A1 Report is to make recommendations regarding the First Year experience at WPI that are informed by educational scholarship and evidence of successful practices, and that will aid in the student’s progress toward the Undergraduate Learning Outcomes.

Drawing on educational research and literature, promising practices at WPI and other institutions of higher education, and data pertaining to WPI’s First Year, the Commission identified five essential objectives for an enhanced First Year program at WPI:

  • To encourage critical thinking, information literacy, and evidence-based writing in the first year;
  • To engage first year students with current events, societal problems, and human needs;
  • To cultivate in each first year student a personal foundation for lifelong learning;
  • To contribute to a more intellectually stimulating environment at WPI;
  • To promote civic engagement and community partnerships.

The Commission has met regularly since its appointment, sharing and analyzing information relevant to these goals, drawing on various resources on and off campus, and debating various strategies for accomplishing the five objectives listed above. To this end, the Commission has developed the following set of preliminary recommendations, the basis and details of which are contained in the Commission A1 Report:

  • That WPI implement a 1/3 unit interdisciplinary First Year Seminar aimed at providing a research and writing experience for all incoming students. The First Year Seminar would neither substitute for nor count toward any existing requirement, but rather would be a new degree requirement for all incoming students (with the exception of transfer students). Seminar topics should touch on contemporary issues of global importance and be chosen to encourage student and faculty engagement. These offerings should promote critical thinking, information literacy, and evidence-based writing, and should engage First Year students with current events, societal problems, and human needs.
  • That the WPI faculty enhance and encourage student engagement throughout the entire First Year, both through curricular and co-curricular activities. The Commission recommends that faculty employ pedagogies to enhance student engagement, such as active, collaborative, service, experiential, and project-based learning in courses intended for First Year students, and the administration support these efforts by faculty development opportunities and resources. The Commission also recommends expansion of engaging and intellectually stimulating activities outside the classroom, including volunteerism, civic involvement, and community partnerships.
  • That faculty teaching courses normally taken in the First Year emphasize integration and connections with other courses to reinforce important concepts and skills and to create synergistic relationships between the concepts being taught from different perspectives.
  • That WPI fully leverage and appropriately support current programs enriching the First Year. Such programs include Insight, the Project-based Learning Community, Departmental Advising and Mentoring initiatives, M*A*S*H, and the Center for Communication across the Curriculum.
  • That academic departments offer pre-professional workshops for each degree program. A First Year pre-professional workshop would complement the proposed interdisciplinary First Year Seminars, and is intended to engage the first year student with his/her home department and possible future profession.
  • That the WPI administration provide faculty development opportunities for First Year activities, and both encourage and reward participation in First Year activities, particularly by demonstrating its value and importance to the Institute in the arenas of tenure, promotion, and merit reviews.
  • That WPI establish an Office of the First Year to have both authority and responsibility for all First Year initiatives, including but not limited to the above proposals. This office might best function within a Division of Undergraduate Studies whose leadership is positioned to coordinate First Year initiatives with the rest of the undergraduate program. The Office of the First Year should enjoy similar or greater stature than academic departments, and its director should have comparable or greater stature than academic department heads. As with all university-wide endeavors, department heads should be held accountable for their departments’ contributions to First Year efforts.

Commission A1 looks forward to feedback from the community regarding these recommendations. Meanwhile, the Commission will continue its work, turning next to the consideration of General Education at WPI.

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