Message from President Berkey

Research as a Creative Enterprise

 

Artists know better than most that creativity is as much rigor and preparation as it is inspiration.

It is widely accepted that research plays a critical role in the academic enterprise, and this is particularly true at a university like WPI where innovation and ingenuity are deeply woven into our curriculum and culture. What receives less attention, however, is the role that creativity plays in modern research.

The common perception, aided in part by Hollywood, is that of the scientist shouting “Eureka!” when the moment of breakthrough arrives. Rarely depicted, however, is the hard slog of rigorous study that leads to such moments. Nor do we see the continuous refinement of questions and the healthy skepticism that constitutes the heart of critical thinking. Also unseen are the painstaking details that constitute a valid experiment, or for that matter, the many experiments that may be required to test and prove a hypothesis.

Artists tell us something quite similar. Talk with any poet or painter about their brilliant inspirations and you will soon hear the phrase creative process, as artists know better than most that creativity is as much rigor and preparation as it is inspiration.

WPI has enjoyed a long history of creative research, stemming in part from our founding philosophy of teaching theory and practice, requiring our students to not only master subjects but apply that mastery to real-world problems and projects.

But our unique curriculum is also designed to give students continuous opportunities to hone their creative skills with a particular focus on problem solving. It starts in the freshman year with our Great Problems Seminars, which challenge first year students to confront one of the world’s great problems and move us closer to a solution. It continues with our academic requirement that WPI students minor in the humanities, providing exposure to the broad skills and creative thinking that the arts can engender.

Creativity truly flourishes with our Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), a team-based, year-long project — typically undertaken during the junior year — that places our students squarely at the intersection of technology and societal issues. Likewise, our Major Qualifying Project (MQP), another team-based, year-long project, requires our students to demonstrate mastery of their major and apply it to a realworld problem, again providing an excellent opportunity to bring creative solutions to specific problems.

Inside this issue of WPI Research, you will find numerous examples of how creativity plays an important role in research. You’ll encounter Professor Ryszard Pryputniewicz and his pioneering work in holographic metrology, which today helps industry answer a fundamental question about new technologies — will they work reliably? You’ll read about Professor Frederick Bianchi and his innovative virtual orchestra, known as the Sinfonia, which replicates an orchestra right down to its ability to follow a real-life conductor. (Bianchi and director of choral music John Delorey are also creating a virtual choir that can simulate the complex integration of basses, tenors, altos, and sopranos.) And you’ll hear about Professors Isa Bar-On, Sharon Johnson, Diane Strong, and Bengisu Tulu, whose work through the Healthcare Delivery Institute at WPI promises to deliver modern medicine more effectively and at less cost.

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote in this very publication that the “most pressing problems in our increasingly complex world are, in fact, interdisciplinary and highly interconnected.” Solving those problems will require expertise and mastery across a range of disciplines, technologies, and innovations. It will also require a healthy dose of creativity. At WPI, we’re preparing our students to be masters of both.

 
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