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Engaging Students With Great Problems

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Service Learning and Societal Issues in the First Year

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.472.1 - 15.472.11



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Paper Authors


Brian Savilonis Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Brian Savilonis is a professor in Mechanical Engineering; he has been at WPI since 1981. His teaching and research is primarily in thermofluids and biofluid mechanics. Email, phone 508-831-5686.

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David Spanagel Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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David Spanagel recently joined WPI in the Department of Humanities and Arts; his scholarship is in history of technology and science. Email, phone 508-831-6403.

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Kristin Wobbe Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Kristin Wobbe is Associate Dean for the First Year and associate professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry. She has been at WPI since 1995. Email; phone 508-831-5375.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Engaging Students with Great Problems


WPI’s Great Problems Seminars were designed to bring first year engineering students into meaningful contact with current events, societal problems, and human needs. Key learning objectives include: introducing project team work and developing writing and presentation skills. Each seminar has focused on a large global issue: food and hunger, energy and its utilization, health and healthcare delivery, the NAE Grand Challenges. Seminars are co-taught by an interdisciplinary pair: one natural science/engineering instructor and one humanities/social science instructor. The first half of the two-term course sequence explores the depth and breadth of the problem; the second half is devoted to project work. Focus group assessment demonstrates that the GPS courses achieve the original course objectives. Student course evaluations indicate high satisfaction despite requiring significantly more work than traditional first year offerings taught within the disciplines. Comments by former GPS students demonstrate that they value how these courses prepared them for their futures. 

Listing the inadequacies of traditional engineering education programs, Edinburgh environmental engineering professor William Turmeau threw down a serious challenge: “Engineering today involves more than the solution of technical problems, more than the design of advanced technological devices, more than the pursuit of pure research, and engineering courses must be reviewed and revised to ensure that engineers, once again, play a role in the wider issues concerning society.” 1 This challenge has been addressed by a series of curricular innovations undertaken by leading institutions of engineering education around the world. Specifically, within the United States, a national trend toward more active, project-based learning in engineering education has been gaining momentum for more than 40 years.2 A widely publicized illustration of the trend was the establishment in 1997 of the Olin College of Engineering, an institution which promised integrated project work in all four years of its curriculum.3 Before and since, and in many places besides Olin, promising engineering students have been enticed to attend a variety of innovative technical education programs that promise real-world experience, training in widely applicable communications skills, and an impeccable foundation in the principles of design and professional standards of practice.

For example, WPI placed project-based learning at the core of its academic program in the early 1970’s when it redesigned its graduation requirements to include two major projects.4 One project undertaken within the student’s major field of study is usually completed during the senior year. Another project is usually completed during the junior year, but this one challenges students to work on an interdisciplinary problem located at the interface of science, technology, and societal needs. To better prepare students for a world like Turmeau’s, practical and cross- cultural engineering elements were increasingly incorporated into the interdisciplinary junior- year project experience. After several decades of implementation, a steady state has been achieved in which approximately half of all students (about 400 students each year) now satisfy this requirement by devoting one quarter of an academic year to work at one of 23 project centers located around the world.5

Savilonis, B., & Spanagel, D., & Wobbe, K. (2010, June), Engaging Students With Great Problems Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15846

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