Peer Review

Designing the Liberally Educated Engineer

Our lives are influenced in unmistakable ways by technology. Technological advances have transformed how we communicate, recreate, work, and travel, and have contributed to longer lives for most people on the planet. Meeting the needs of the one billion or so who live without regular access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity will depend on technology developed in locally-appropriate ways, in light of social, political, and economic realities. Scientific discovery may enable technological progress, but it is the engineering profession, through development and application, that actively shapes the world around us.

At the heart of engineering is the act of design: meeting human needs under constraints. Good engineering design requires an understanding of social context—not only users’ immediate desires, but also the environmental, ethical, economic, and cultural implications of technology. While science seeks to isolate phenomena from context, engineers tinker in the messy laboratory of society, applying knowledge and tools to open-ended, ill-posed problems. Engineers should understand how technology can shape, and be shaped by, the human condition. Remarkably, we attempt to prepare students for this daunting profession at the baccalaureate level. What chance do engineers stand of receiving a broad, liberal education—and what chance does society stand of a more sustainable future if they don’t?

Engineering Education: Contested Turf, High Stakes

The history of engineering education has been described as one of “continuous reform,” as tensions between theory and practice, content and skill development, and especially, technical depth and liberal learning have existed since the nineteenth century (Seely 2005). Today, turf battles continue between engineering analysis—the scholarly focus of most engineering faculty at research universities—and engineering design, with its broader context and connection to professional practice. At the institutional level, few programs present more challenges than engineering to balancing general education outcomes with the major. Given the desire to involve the latest technologies and tools, and a tendency for spinning off new specializations and areas of study, engineering curricula often leave students gasping for air, with little time to pursue nontechnical interests—a narrowness that can deter women and minorities (Busch-Vishniac and Jarosz 2004).

The past two decades have seen progress toward more well-rounded engineering education. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s Engineering Criteria 2000 (ABET EC 2000), adopted in 1997, have been highly influential in directing engineering programs toward broader learning outcomes. ABET’s criteria require attention to engineering design, and expect programs to demonstrate that students possess abilities in teamwork, communication, awareness of current events, and “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context” (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology 2011). Given the importance of ABET accreditation, programs have broadened in response, especially in the areas of engineering design, teamwork, and communication.

More recently, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) released “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” part of a multiyear envisioning exercise involving leaders from academia and the public and private sectors (National Academy of Engineering 2005). The report is an ambitious call to augment traditional analytical skills with ingenuity and creativity; communication, business, and leadership skills; ethics, professionalism, and flexibility; and an understanding of the social and global contexts of the profession. Notably, the report recommends that the baccalaureate become a pre-engineering degree emphasizing breadth, and leading to specialization only at the graduate level.

And yet, across the nation, engineering curricula have been slow to change, and reform has been largely at the margins, rather than central to the curriculum. Engineering faculty—often applied scientists rather than designers—tend to protect analytical content in the curriculum, and can view liberal learning as a “soft” pursuit less worthy of attention than more technical material. Employer surveys cite the need for breadth, but corporate representatives come to campuses demanding experience in the latest specific tools and technologies. Despite the global nature of the engineering profession, engineering students continue to participate in study abroad at low levels. Change, however broadly called for, tends to be incremental rather than systemic.

The WPI Plan: Applying Knowledge in Authentic Settings

In the late 1960s, Worcester Polytechnic Institute—an engineering-focused private institution founded in 1865—found itself saddled with a rigid curriculum that left students with few choices and faculty with little room for educational innovation. From this unlikely setting came transformative change, fueled by progressive faculty and supported by a bold president, resulting in adoption of the WPI Plan in 1970 (Grogan and Vaz 2003). The plan framed technological education in terms of students’ abilities to apply knowledge in authentic settings. The signature elements of the plan were a series of degree-required projects, two of which were focused not on science or engineering but rather on students’ grappling with humanistic values and the social contexts of technology.

The philosophy behind the plan, as still articulated in WPI’s Goal Statement (WPI 2011), is for students “to form a deep appreciation of the interrelationships among basic knowledge, technological advance, and human need.” Required courses, prerequisites, and traditional grades were replaced by a system emphasizing integrative and interdisciplinary learning demonstrated through cooperative, open-ended project work. While the WPI Plan has evolved and matured during its forty years of existence, the fundamental values placed on project-based learning, curricular flexibility, and social and human needs have remained—even as WPI has transformed into a research university.

A key aspect of the WPI Plan is the extent to which learning outcomes and degree requirements are defined at the campus-wide level for students regardless of major. The university’s learning outcomes (WPI 2011) specify that graduates of WPI will

  1. have a base of knowledge in mathematics, science, and humanistic studies;
  2. have mastered fundamental concepts and methods in their principal areas of study;
  3. understand and employ current technological tools;
  4. be effective in oral, written, and visual communication;
  5. function effectively both individually and on teams;
  6. be able to identify, analyze, and solve problems creatively through sustained critical investigation;
  7. be able to make connections between disciplines and to integrate information from multiple sources;
  8. be aware of how their decisions affect and are affected by other individuals separated by time, space, and culture;
  9. be aware of personal, societal, and professional ethical standards; and
  10. have the skills, diligence, and commitment to excellence needed to engage in lifelong learning.

Outcomes four through ten reflect WPI’s focus on curricular breadth, collaborative problem solving, and awareness of societal and global issues. WPI students demonstrate these outcomes primarily through a series of project activities that require them to bring knowledge to bear in practical settings.

Experiential Learning across the Curriculum

The WPI Plan engages students in open-ended inquiry both in and out of the major field of study, and across the four years. Students are challenged to engage in a series of increasingly complex learning experiences involving application and integration, teamwork and responsibility, persuasive communication, and understanding the social and cultural contexts of engineering and science. While the program’s flexibility creates many options for students to construct unique paths to graduation, five activities form the heart of the WPI Plan.

Great Problems Seminars
To introduce first-year students to WPI’s emphasis on problem-based learning, the university has organized a set of two-course Great Problems Seminars. In the first of these courses, students explore aspects of a particular challenge facing the world, such as energy, food security, public health, education, or sustainable development. In the second course, students work in small teams to independently research prospective solutions to these problems. Students in the Heal the World seminar have developed recommendations for reducing breast cancer in Uganda, studied efficiency challenges in US healthcare delivery, and developed smoking cessation programs for the WPI campus. Feed the World projects have addressed malnutrition in elderly Worcester residents, promotion of polyculture into mainstream farming, and the impacts of food additives on children’s health.

Each Great Problems Seminar is cotaught by two faculty members, typically one from engineering or science and the other from the humanities, business, or social science. The faculty work as a team, cofacilitating the course to make clear the interdisciplinary nature of the problem. Despite the breadth of focus areas, all the seminars have the same goals: “engagement with current events, societal problems, and human needs; critical thinking, information literacy, and evidence-based writing; and development of professional skills including effective teamwork, time management, organization, and personal responsibility” (Wobbe, Savilonis, and Spanagel 2010). Through independent project work, students develop a goal or thesis, conduct original research, and present their results in written and oral formats. The seminars culminate in a campus-wide event in which the first-year students present and defend their work in a judged poster presentation forum.

Humanities and Arts Requirement
The WPI Plan asks students to choose a specific area of focus in the humanities and arts, toward the goal of creating a life-long engagement with that area. Akin to a minor, the requirement involves a set of courses chosen by the student that culminates in a seminar or practicum in which students do original work, such as a research paper, original composition, or other creative endeavor under the guidance of a faculty member. The requirement also has a modest breadth component, but no specific courses or disciplines are mandatory—students design their own programs according to their interests. The goals include self-knowledge, independent thinking, and communication, but in particular emphasize critical inquiry and the ability to apply concepts and skills in a particular area of the humanities or the arts.

Students might pursue coursework in the history of science, and then write a research paper investigating the influence of a certain scientific development on political or cultural forces. Students focusing in music will often compose and perform original work. Studies in Arabic language and culture may culminate in cultural research conducted in Morocco. The requirement is for eighteen credit hours of work in the humanities and arts; some students pursue considerably more.

Interactive Qualifying Project
The most distinctive element of the WPI Plan, the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) is a nine-credit-hour interdisciplinary requirement involving applied research connecting science or technology with social issues and human needs. The intent of the requirement is for WPI’s students, most of whom aspire to be engineers or scientists, to better understand the cultural and social contexts of those fields, and thus be more effective and socially responsible practitioners and citizens. Faculty members from all disciplines are involved in advising IQPs.

The IQP is not organized as a course, nor is it related to the major; small teams of students work under faculty guidance to conduct research, often using social science methods, directed at a particular problem, typically posed by a not-for-profit organization or government agency. Students deliver findings and recommendations through formal reports and oral presentations to the sponsors and faculty advisors. About half of all IQPs are completed off-campus through the Global Perspective Program, as explained below.

Sustainability serves as a common theme for IQPs, many of which address problems related to energy, environment, sustainable development, education, cultural preservation, and technology policy. IQPs completed in Cape Town, South Africa, focus on community capacity building, energy sustainability, and water resource management. In Washington, DC, students recommend new policies to the Consumer Products Safety Commission and help the National Science Foundation evaluate the impact and effectiveness of its programs. In WPI’s home city of Worcester, students have worked with an AIDS support organization to develop community gardens to improve nutrition, and conducted a study that resulted in a local school erecting a 600-kilowatt wind turbine to meet all its energy needs.

Major Qualifying Project
Building on the IQP, the Major Qualifying Project (MQP) is also a nine-credit-hour requirement in which small teams of students work under faculty direction to do original work. This project is completed in the student’s major; for engineers, the MQP usually involves a design project or applied research. Students use what they have learned, both in the major and across the curriculum, to tackle a problem in their primary area of study. MQPs are often completed with corporate sponsors or research laboratories, and are intended to be similar to the assignments in a first engineering job. In addition to whatever system, solution, or device is responsive to the problem, students develop a formal written report and present their work in oral form as well.

Learning goals of the MQP echo those of the prior projects, including research and communication skills, integrative learning, problem solving, ethical questioning, and other professional capacities. Electrical engineering students may work on telecommunications system design for a local corporation. Students focusing on manufacturing engineering can complete their MQP working in China along with Chinese university students on design projects for multinational firms. Civil and environmental engineering students may work on faculty research projects or with local municipalities. The projects are not structured as internships for pay, but as academic work overseen by WPI faculty.

Global Perspective Program
Many stakeholders have called for development of global awareness and cross-cultural competency in engineering programs. However, few international programs serve a significant number of engineering students. Factors facilitating scalability and sustainability of international engineering programs include progress toward graduation, engineering faculty involvement, and institutional commitment (Vaz 2008).

Through the Global Perspective Program, over 60 percent of all WPI students complete at least one academic project—typically the IQP or MQP—away from the WPI campus, and about 50 percent complete at least one overseas. WPI operates Project Centers in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, and Europe, where student teams and faculty advisors spend two months addressing problems for local organizations. Since 1974, over 8,000 students have completed off-campus projects. Off-campus project work is preceded by rigorous preparation, typically involving culture and language learning but focused primarily on research, methods, and skills for the project students will tackle.

The Global Perspective Program has seen high levels of participation primarily because the projects it involves are central to the curriculum. Whereas academic exchange often creates challenges for engineering students to graduate on time, WPI’s off-campus programs focus on degree requirements—the IQP and MQP. The objective is neither area studies nor an internship, but faculty-led contextual problem solving. Assessment has indicated consistently higher levels of student achievement in off-campus projects compared to those done on campus (DiBiasio and Mello 2004). Faculty from all disciplines are involved in the program, raising its profile on campus and providing a range of opportunities for students.

Guiding Principles

With an emphasis on interdisciplinarity, experiential learning, and open-ended problem solving, WPI takes an intentionally broad approach to educating engineers. Evidence suggests this breadth does not come at the cost of successful career preparation. A 2008 analysis of college and university graduates by Forbes magazine placed WPI ninth nationally for earnings of alumni ten to twenty years after graduation (Forbes 2008). WPI’s engineering programs have had robust success in accreditation, and were chosen to pilot ABET’s innovative EC2000 criteria.

The following guiding principles suggest why the WPI Plan has been sustained and strengthened over the years.

Coherence and Interconnectedness
The project activities of the plan—the Great Problems Seminar, Humanities and Arts Requirement, IQP, and MQP—form a sequence of steps toward an institutional vision for technological professionals. Each activity emphasizes inquiry, integration, and problem solving in increasingly complex settings. Each is writing-intensive and asks students to develop skills for professional and personal success. Each maps clearly to institutional learning goals.

Experiential Learning across the Curriculum
Of the four projects, only the MQP is related to the student’s major; the other three are specifically intended to broaden students’ perspectives. The Humanities and Arts Requirement, IQP, and MQP can all be completed off-campus through the Global Perspective Program. Students solve problems in and out of the major, and in and out of the classroom.

Engagement across the Disciplines
Faculty from across campus are involved in Great Problems Seminars, IQPs, and the Global Perspective Program, creating a campus culture with high levels of faculty and student collaboration, both in education and research. Engineering faculty participation is visible to students, demonstrating the value they place on project learning in and out of the major.

A Culture of Evidence and Innovation
WPI has adopted student learning outcomes at the institutional, degree program, project program, and course levels. Broad involvement by faculty in assessment has made the learning outcomes of project work evident, bolstering support and encouraging expansion. Assessment results are used as evidence in a regular process of curricular revision and innovation.

Calls for change in engineering education from higher education leaders, policy makers, and the private sector have never been so pervasive or compelling. They articulate a need for liberally educated problem solvers and innovators.

Forty years ago, WPI rebuilt its curriculum around experiential learning and broad outcomes; reformers seeking to modify established curricula face a different challenge. Systemic change is not easy, but the stakes are high and the goals are increasingly clear: to graduate engineers with the broad perspectives and skills to creatively and wisely take on the world’s most pressing problems.


Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. 2011. Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs, 2013–2014. Washington, DC: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

Bloomberg Businessweek. 2012. What’s Your College Degree Worth? New York, New York: Bloomberg.

Busch-Vishniac, I., and J. Jarosz. 2004. “Can Diversity in the Undergraduate Engineering Population Be Enhanced Through Curricular Change?” Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 10: 3.

DiBiasio, D., and N. Mello. 2004. “Assessing a Nontraditional Study Abroad Program in the Engineering Discipline.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 10.

Forbes. 2008.

Grogan, W. R., and R. F. Vaz. 2003. “The Seven Steps to Sustainable Change at WPI.” Liberal Education 89: 1, 32–35.

National Academy of Engineering. 2005. Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Academy of Engineering. (accessed January 2012). Washington, DC: The National Academy of Sciences.

Seely, B. E. 2005. Patterns in the History of Engineering Education Reform: A Brief Essay. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Vaz, R. F. 2008. “Scalable and Sustainable Programs for Internationalizing US Engineering Education: Are They Achievable?” Proceedings of the ASEE Global Colloquium on Engineering Education. Cape Town, South Africa: American Society for Engineering Education.

Wobbe, K., Savilonis, B., and D. Spanagel. 2010. “Engaging Students with Great Problems.” Proceedings of ASEE Annual Meeting. Louisville, KY: American Society for Engineering Education.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 2011. WPI Undergraduate Catalog. Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Richard F. Vaz is the dean of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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