Lead Institution: Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA
Collaborating Institutions: University research center; cultural & educational institutions; non-profit; community programs
Category: First Year
Date Implemented: Fall 2007
Program Description: Great Problems Seminars (GPS) engage first year students with current events, societal problems, and human need; require critical thinking, information literacy, and evidence-based writing; develop effective teamwork, time management, organization, and personal responsibility; and provide first year students with a project experience that prepares them for more substantial required projects. Current GPS offerings have either a singular focus problem (energy, food, healthcare) or analyze the NAE Grand Challenges. Courses are team-taught by faculty from Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Business. The instructors are present concurrently, demonstrating mutual respect and modeling intellectual discourse and learning. Grades are largely based on written work and projects, not quizzes and tests. In the first half of the course, faculty and students explore the depth and breadth of the problem, developing an appreciation of the complexity and inter-relatedness of the technical, social, economic, cultural, political, and historical issues using selected readings from a variety of sources like news media, books, scholarly writings, or historical texts. The faculty’s role is that of facilitator and tutor in leading class discussions. Students respond to and further explore the issues through writing, discussion, and open-ended problem solving, both as individuals and in teams. Invited speakers and experiential learning provide further opportunities to cement knowledge and expand understanding. Teams of 3-5 students work on a project for the final half of the course, either developing a solution for a sponsor’s problem or solving some aspect of the course’s big problem. With substantial guidance, students research the problem, identify possible solutions, select effective solutions taking into consideration real-world constraints, and design an implementation process and mechanisms to assess effectiveness. During the process, the students are expected to communicate with sponsors, advisors, external experts, and other teams, seeking feedback and advice. The team produces a report and promotional literature targeted to the audience from whom action is required as well as a poster presented to the WPI community in a joint GPS poster session. GPS was informed by pedagogical literature, and faculty have been engaged in pedagogical research projects and have used their background and expertise to inform course activities.
Anticipated and Actual Outcomes: Anticipated outcomes were increased disciplinary engagement, big picture thinking, appreciation for social context, self-exploration, teamwork, and improved oral, written, and public communications. Actual outcomes included: (1) leadership in international Interactive Qualifying Projects (IQP) for graduation, which are interactive projects between social sciences and technical issues; (2) high level of interest in Grand Challenges graduates in Global Perspectives Program and seamless transition to IQP and Major Qualifying Projects (MQP) in the student’s major carried out in the senior year; (3) increased awareness of the impacts of engineering interventions and solutions on environment and culture; (4) big picture thinking about one’s professional development; (5) appreciation of complexity of real life issues and embracing humanities and social science offerings on campus; (6) self-exploration via increased critical thinking, questioning canon, defining professional interests earlier; (7) teamwork; (8) improved oral, written and public communications; and (9) improved success at attaining internships and summer employment post-GPS.
Assessment Information: GPS is assessed externally each year to explore student attitudes towards attaining global learning outcomes, student and faculty perceptions of the program, and student performance on a project required for graduation. Methods include pre/post surveys of students, student and faculty focus groups, and surveys of project advisors. A survey revealed that GPS students reported statistically significantly higher levels of engagement than nonGPS students in working effectively in teams, developing a greater understanding of contemporary and global issues, solving complex problems, and presenting and defending opinions by making judgments about information, validity of ideas, or quality of work based on a set of criteria. GPS alumni indicated they developed skills in project management, teamwork, time management, presentation skills, critical thinking, team leadership, accepting critical feedback, and having confidence to speak with individuals in positions of power.
Funding/Sustainability: Prior to initiation, WPI made a commitment to reinvigorating first year programs by investing in a 50% new position, the Associate Dean for the First Year. Costs specific to GPS are: summer support/course development, $35,000; instructor compensation, $65,000; and course costs, $10,000. An alumnus made a substantial donation each of the first two years and the difference was funded from the university’s operating budget; the University operating budget now provides full support for the program. We continue to hire faculty who have designated responsibility for teaching in the GPS. Departments have an expectation to contribute by allowing faculty participation. The program has funding to help cover faculty time if necessary. We solicit philanthropic contributions to support the program, but the program is not contingent upon receiving external funding. WPI has fully committed to the program as part of its academic operation. Other key contributors are technology professionals, reference librarians, and the offices of Undergraduate Admissions and Academic Advising, which make incoming students aware of these courses when they register prior to their first semester.