Thursday, September 22, 2011

WPI Plan - a great educational model for all schools

There has been a lot of talk about education reform and what models will help our students learn the best. I submit that Worcester Polytechnic Institute's undergraduate program plan is a great model to follow. It stresses learning, critical thinking, functional literacy in a topic, project based learning, and student creativity. 
College was a great experience for me and I learned much more than just content. In fact, I feel that my undergraduate degree at WPI prepared me for anything I want to do in the future. Let me explain.

I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, MA. WPI is an excellent school, highly ranked, and offers an excellent educational experience. The school is small, with only 3,400 undergraduate students. But, the school is well equipped and well run. 

The secret behind the school's success is the unique curriculum, called the WPI Plan, consisting of 4 quarters instead of 2 semesters, 3 large projects, and course curriculum that are mainly project based. Each undergraduate has to complete a Humanities Sufficiency Project, an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) and a Major Qualifying Project (MQP)

The Sufficiency is a 3 credit project and course sequence in the humanities which ensures that all WPI graduates are well rounded. Instead of students having to take meaningless core courses, they develop their own plan and sequence. I took a writing course to help improve my writing skills and then took a sequence of courses in US Government and Foreign Policy before doing my project on the political use of air power in the Vietnam war.

The IQP is a 9 credit project done in the junior year which relates science and technology to society. My group did a project on the Quality of Technical Education in the United States. As part of it, we did research on different programs, school systems, number of students taking technical majors (engineering, science, etc.) and then surveyed current engineers and scientists about their college education and what they thought was good and bad about it. We also looked at how well high school's were preparing students for these types of college majors and made recommendations for high school programs. (which started my interest in education).

The MQP is a 9 credit project done in the senior year similar to a Master's thesis. My group designed a Two-Stage-To-Orbit space craft. We had to do everything from project planning, to engineering design and analysis, to working with NASA (who sponsored the project) to get information and feedback. The project then had to be presented and defended in our department. 

The project based curriculum helps students learn content and develop problem solving, communications, and teamwork skills. It also helps develop ethics and responsibility in the students. I found that my WPI education has prepared me for my career as an engineer, as well as an educator, and served me well in many capacities.

This plan stresses project based learning. Why? Because back when they developed the Plan (over 30 years ago) they knew that the only way to truly master subject area content is to apply it. They also knew that students needed to develop teamwork, communication skills, problem solving skills, creativity, critical thinking, and research skills (sounds like "21st Century skills" doesn't it?). WPI's symbol is the two towers of the first two buildings on campus. Lehr und Kunst. German for Theory and Practice, it's WPI's founding motto and the principle that still underlies the academic programs today. In class, in projects, and in research, students and faculty put knowledge into action to make the world better.

The projects are an integral part of the Plan. All classes are expected to use projects in their curriculum and the school has the three projects that all students must complete. The classes are taught by professors who are very dedicated to education, not just research. Each class is project based and emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving, along with a functional literacy of the topic, over memorizing data and facts.

I think that WPI was ahead of the game with their plan, considering this is the route that high schools and even middle schools are going. K-12 education is starting to realize how important these skills are and that project based learning is a great way to engage students while teaching them content and other needed skills.

I think that we can make more schools like WPI and do a better job of teaching our students the skills they need to know: teamwork, communications, problem solving, critical thinking, self-education and lifelong learning.

The students at WPI are given more control over their education by having the freedom to choose what they want to learn and how they are going to learn it. There are not a huge number of unneeded and useless "core" classes for students to take. Students create their own humanities program and their own educational plan. There is space in their schedule for them to take elective classes to explore new areas and topics. Students learn the basics and develop a fundamental literacy in each subject. Students do not memorize formulas and facts. They learn how to apply their knowledge to real-world problems and situations. For example, in Thermodynamics, we were taught the three laws of thermodynamics in depth. Then we were able to apply these to any situation instead of learning 10-15 different equations for different situations. This is in contrast to many schools who teach students every little equation for specific situations instead of teaching them the basics and how to apply the basics to any situation.

All of the learning, research and projects all have a purpose beyond just for class. Projects are all real-world applications or really are real-world projects. Student projects have included working to shore up the canals of Venice, design water systems for villages in Africa, developing medical equipment for disabled or sick patients, designing safety features for cars, and much more. This learning with a purpose gives meaning to what everyone is doing. This is very important in education.

WPI stresses teaching over research also and is very committed to the quality of the professors. Professors who have issues with their teaching or have poor reviews by students (each class has a evaluation form done by every student and these are taken very seriously) are given support and help in changing and improving their teaching. They are not vilified. They are supported and helped and that means that they become better educators. This is what we need to do with K-12 educators - help them when they struggle, not demonize them as the reason for the failure of society.

The WPI Plan is an excellent model for schools to use as a way to make education more personalized, engaging, relevant, and effective in preparing students for the future. The education there goes beyond preparing them just for the major they are in. The education prepares students for life. They are prepared to continue their education, adapt to new situations, and even change careers from engineering to education. It is truly a unique and effective way to teach and learn.

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