Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

The Impacts of Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

In 1970, after one hundred years as a traditional science and engineering university, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) re-engineered its technological education to a new, student-centered approach focused on project-based learning.

They had a good reason.

“It’s fun for everyone,” said Kristin Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “It's harder, but it makes life more interesting.”

Since then, WPI has been an innovator and advocate of project-based learning, integrating it across their curriculum and studying its effects on professional and character development. Assessments have also uncovered interesting data about the role of gender in projects, and WPI has conducted further research into how implicit biases in team-based projects can marginalize certain student populations.

Project-Based Immersion in the Junior Year

Since the 1970s, the cornerstone of WPI’s project-based curriculum has been a nine-credit interdisciplinary experience for third-year students that connects science and technology with the needs of human communities. For seven weeks, students and faculty guides are immersed full-time in a project that is often unconnected from their disciplines. While some students complete traditional on-campus projects, nearly 90 percent of students are scheduled to go to one of WPI’s fifty-plus off-campus project centers in the next academic year. These centers—working in partnership with companies, nonprofits, or local government agencies—span the United States and six continents (all but Antarctica), including sites in New Zealand, Costa Rica, Albania, and across town in Worcester. About half of WPI students complete projects abroad.

Whether they are looking at the effect of nutrition on disease management with AIDS Project Worcester or helping protect Venice from dangerous wakes caused by cruise ships, “we want students who complete these projects to learn how to do research, how to collaborate, how to solve problems, how to communicate effectively, and how to think about how the context of a problem influences its appropriate solution,” said Richard Vaz, director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning.

Before students leave campus, they learn about the communities in the region they will work in, as well as ethical considerations about engaging with communities.

“Problems need to be locally defined and, to the extent possible, locally solved,” Vaz said. “Students typically apply methods from the social sciences to understand how solutions to whatever problem is at hand might impact different stakeholders.”

One project took place near Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. Like South Africa, Namibia suffered under apartheid, resulting in informal settlements for people of color that had been forced out of the city.

“Very often they're squatting on land that they don't own,” Vaz said. “Very often they're living in informally organized housing without, perhaps, running water or electricity.”

Each year, these problems are worsened by flooding and erosion during the rainy season. “It washes away the gardens that communities rely on. It washes away the stairs that give them access to their homes. It really creates a lot of havoc,” Vaz said.

Working with an organization that supports the communities, students researched successful approaches to flooding and erosion in different parts of the world. Because the community had limited resources, students needed to think strategically. The community did have access to discarded tires, and students’ research had shown that filling tires with rocks and burying them could prevent land from washing away.

“The students worked with the community only long enough to introduce the idea, and then stood back and let the community decide what they were going to do,” Vaz said. The community moved forward with the plan, burying tires in several sites across the area. The leaders were so proud of their work that they met with neighboring communities to teach them the solution.

“Students are very often able to do more than they imagined that they could,” Vaz said. “When you talk to them about their experiences, the pride and the accomplishment are evident. It can be transformational for some of these students.” 

The Effects of Project-Based Learning

In the last fifty years, collaborative project-based learning has spread throughout the WPI curriculum. In the senior year, students complete another nine-credit project in their major, which is usually carried out on campus but can sometimes be done at an off-campus center.

Another project-based experience, the Great Problems Seminar, attracts three hundred first-year students a year (about a third or quarter of the first-year population). Team-taught by two faculty in different disciplines, these courses examine a problem related to water or food scarcity, healthcare, education, energy, resource recovery, or biodiversity.

For the first half of the course, students examine the problem in different regions of the world from different disciplinary perspectives. In the second half of the course, the students are broken into small teams to study a specific instance of the problem. They choose a solution that seems feasible, create an implementation plan, and design assessments to examine the efficacy of the solution after six-months, a year, or several decades. Students present their work in a poster session at the end of the semester that is open to the entire community.

In 2012, WPI conducted surveys of alumni who graduated between 1974 and 2011 to gauge the impact of their project-based learning experiences. In 2,532 survey responses, alumni said that their projects greatly affected their professional lives, character development, and global perspectives (see figures 1 and 2 for a selection of the data).

These effects were even more pronounced for students who completed a project off campus. Whether they traveled across town or across the world, students who completed an off-campus project experienced greater positive benefits than those who remained on campus in thirty-three of thirty-nine categories included in the survey (see figure 2).

“When you give students a problem that's been posed by some external agency or organization, the authenticity of that problem is highly motivating to them,” Vaz said. “It has the potential to help other people, and students, we found, really bring their best efforts in those situations and are much more likely to engage deeply and have more powerful learning experiences.”

Figure 1.

WPI Alumni Survey3 (1).PNG

Each year, up to 20 percent of WPI’s faculty join students on their immersive IQP projects. Most projects are supervised by two faculty members who, like students, will be working outside their disciplinary focus. While it is difficult for faculty to leave their families and on-campus commitments for two months at a time, they gain a lot from their experience.

“The students have the benefit of getting advice from very different disciplinary perspectives, and the faculty learn a lot from each other,” Vaz said. “It’s helped to create a culture here that embraces interdisciplinarity and knocks down the walls that can exist between disciplines on campus.”

Because of the immense benefits of these off-campus experiences, WPI is committed to making them available to all students. Starting in the 2018–19 academic year, all first-year students are eligible for a $5,000 scholarship to help finance the costs related to off-campus projects.

Since 2016, WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning has also worked with approximately 120 colleges and universities of all types to advance project-based learning on their own campuses.

The Effects of Project-Based Learning

Data from the alumni survey and other assessments have raised interesting questions about the role of project-based learning on specific groups of students.

For most of its 150-year history, WPI was “predominately male and overwhelmingly white,” Wobbe said. In the 1970s, the student population was less than 10 percent female, and it was about 15 percent female when Wobbe joined the faculty in 1995.

While students of color now make up approximately 12 percent of the population, the percent of women has grown much more quickly.

“Currently we're over 40 percent, so we've made great leaps recently,” Wobbe said.

The project-based curriculum has been instrumental in recruiting and retaining female students. “One of the most interesting findings from the alumni study was that female alumni reported more strongly positive benefits from project-based learning than men in thirty-six out of thirty-nine categories,” Vaz said (see figure 2). “We weren't really expecting that. Although, when we started digging into the research, we realized that that was very consistent with research showing that women are more highly motivated than men by collaborative work and by work that has the potential to help other people.”

Figure 2.

Professional impact 2.PNG

Through surveys of two groups of students—those who took a first-year Great Problems Seminar and those who did not—faculty found that the projects “overwhelmingly” increased students’ confidence, Wobbe said, and students are more willing to answer questions in class or to take positions of leadership.

“It's because we're asking them to do something hard, and we're asking them to do something very different than what they're accustomed to doing in a classroom setting,” she said. “They perform very well and almost universally surprise themselves at what they can accomplish.”

The first-year seminar has also helped to scaffold learning for later project-based experiences. Students who had taken the first-year seminar were better than their peers at answering questions about future project-based learning experiences, including the kind of work they would be doing, strategies to deal with conflict, how to work on a team, why they wanted to go to a specific place in their junior year, and what they hoped to get out of the experience.

Combatting the Role of Bias in Team-Based Projects

Inspired by research that shows the positive effects that high-impact practices can have on underrepresented minority, first-generation, transfer, and low-income students, WPI began evaluating the effects of the first-year Great Problems Seminar on student retention in 2016.

Rather than seeing the increases that they expected, they “were quite disappointed to find a very small, yet statistically significant increase in students of color and first-generation students who left WPI if they had taken one of these courses,” Wobbe said.

To find out more about why this might be happening, professors Lisa Stoddard and Geoffrey Pfeifer began reviewing literature, speaking with student focus groups, and collecting and analyzing reflections.

One theme that came up in the literature and in student responses was a feeling that students in a group receive tasks from teammates based “on unconscious biases, assumptions, stereotypes of who's good at what type of work,” Stoddard said, citing research by Lorelle Meadows and Denise Sekaquaptewa. For example, women may be communicators, organizers, or note-takers in the group, while men may take on more technical and leadership roles.

Based on focus groups, Pfeifer and Stoddard have seen this affect students in their large projects in the first, third, and fourth years, as well as in small group work in other classes.

“We have a quote from a chemical engineering student who said that she always played the same role on teams, and she feels like even though she's graduating as a chemical engineer, she hasn't gotten all of the skills and experiences that she needs to be able to be a confident and highly functioning chemical engineer in the workplace,” Stoddard said.

Other students felt like they were being negatively stereotyped by students who didn’t recognize their assets. According to one student they spoke to, “[A] stereotype that people place on me is being a stereotypical lazy Latino. In previous groups, they’d give me the minimum work to do and were surprised when I spoke up and said I could also cover other parts.”

Other times, students feel like the work they are doing is not represented in the final product from the group, or that they’re not recognized for their ideas. According to a first-generation Latina student, “There were several instances where either Grace [name changed for privacy] or I would mention something during our meetings, but we’d be ignored, and then one of the guys would say the same thing as we said and he gets credit for it.”

“This kind of repeated experience can really turn students off,” Pfeifer said. “It can make them quieter, it can make them withdraw from the team, and then they lose the benefits of the teamwork.”

Stoddard and Pfeifer have developed three modules they use within the first-year Great Problems Seminar to make students aware of implicit biases and the strengths each student brings to a project. In the last three years, 1,200 students have been exposed to the modules.

Module 1. Students are asked to read about the benefits of various forms of diversity (e.g., cognitive diversity or identity diversity) on teams. Then, students create an asset map of their strengths, including relevant course work, jobs, volunteer experiences, and personal and cultural background. Finally, they identify three areas for growth during the project.

Module 2. At the first team meeting, students share their asset maps and areas of growth with their teammates. Students are given a chart that breaks the team project into specific tasks such as interviewing community members or using technology for digital design. They work together to determine which team members will take the lead on certain project tasks, based on members’ assets and desired areas for growth.

Module 3. Halfway through the projects, most students have faced challenges within the team. At this point, they are assigned readings about the effects of stereotyping and bias on student learning and project effectiveness. Students individually review tasks they and their team members were assigned or volunteered for. They reflect on their role and whether they are using their assets, using the assets of their team members, growing in the areas they wanted, and providing opportunities for their team members to grow. Then, as a group, they assess their team dynamic by answering questions about who talks the most or least, who makes the most or least decisions, and how this might impact project success, student learning, and feelings of inclusion. Where gaps are identified through individual and group reflection, teams develop plans to address them.

The experience brings students together. They quickly start to learn about each other, and soon they are laughing as they “find that they share assets, they find that they share experiences, they find that students on their teams have experiences that they don't have,” Pfeifer said. It opens their world to the other students who are on their team.”

Now that the project is in its third year, the next step is to return to the data to see if the small disparities they identified before remain. With a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, they are also beginning a new three-year project to replicate the modules in upper-level courses and student organizations. They are currently collecting reflections and plan to begin focus groups soon.

The end goal, Stoddard and Pfeifer said, is that students bring these strategies away from WPI and into teams within their workplaces, where the threat of implicit bias also exists.