Project-based engineering program nets $500K award

Annual award recognizes excellence in cultivating engineering leadership

engineering-curriculumWorcester Polytechnic Institute educators Diran Apelian, Arthur C. Heinricher, Richard F. Vaz, and Kristin K. Wobbe are recipients of the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, “for a project-based engineering curriculum developing leadership, innovative problem-solving, interdisciplinary collaboration, and global competencies.”

The $500,000 annual award, announced by the National Academy of Engineering, recognizes new modalities and experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders.

The Gordon Prize ceremony will be held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) this spring.

“I am pleased to recognize the 2016 Gordon Prize recipients and Worcester Polytechnic Institute for their transformational work in educating students to tackle society’s greatest challenges and developing thoughtful and well-equipped engineering leaders,” said NAE President C.D. Mote, Jr.

The project-based engineering curriculum at WPI prepares 21st century leaders to tackle global issues through interdisciplinary collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. The Institute’s engineering program engages students with a specially designed sequence in which first-year students complete projects on topics such as energy and water; second-year capstones focus on the humanities and arts; junior-year interdisciplinary projects relate technology to society; and senior design projects are done in conjunction with external sponsors, providing relevant experience upon graduation.

Last year, WPI launched its Institute on Project-Based Learning, an initiative to help other colleges and universities make progress toward implementing project-based learning on their campuses.

Diran Apelian, WPI’s provost from 1990 to 1997, is credited with bolstering the infrastructure needed for global programs as well as project-based learning across the campus. He led the charge to broaden WPI’s academic programs by supporting faculty to reengineer engineering education and ensuring a holistic approach to learning. For the last decade he has played a pivotal role in transforming students’ first-year experiences with programs such as the Great Problems Seminar where students dive into large-scale problems such as those identified by the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering. Apelian and corecipient Heinricher are also the architects of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program at WPI.

Arthur C. Heinricher joined the faculty at WPI in 1992 and has been dean of undergraduate studies since 2008. In this capacity he is responsible for the assessment and improvement of undergraduate programs and curriculum. As a professor of mathematical sciences, he helped usher in new curriculum models such as undergraduate peer learning assistants to support team projects in introductory courses and a unified calculus-physics-humanities learning community for interdisciplinary projects. He also serves on the steering committee for WPI’s Institute on Project-Based Learning, was a founding member and associate director and director for the WPI Center for Industrial Mathematics and Statistics, and helped organize WPI’s Research Experience for Undergraduates in Industrial Mathematics and Statistics.

As dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, Richard F. Vaz has overseen expansion of WPI’s Global Projects Program from 18 to 46 locations, while leading the charge to increase student participation in off-campus project programs. Vaz oversees efforts to evaluate and enhance the quality of the Interactive Qualifying Project, WPI’s interdisciplinary research project requirement, and directed a major study from 2012 to 2014 evaluating the long-term impacts of project work on 38 years’ worth of WPI alumni. In 2015, Vaz led the development and delivery of WPI’s Institute on Project-Based Learning.

Kristin K. Wobbe, associate dean for undergraduate studies and director of WPI’s Great Problems Seminar (GPS), was a significant driver of the development and implementation of first-year curriculum, participating on the committee that recommended the introduction of a first-year project experience and then in delivering one of the inaugural classes in the program. She led efforts to develop common learning outcomes and associated rubrics for programmatic assessment. Wobbe initiated a summer faculty development program for the GPS instructors in which best practices are shared, common frameworks have been developed, and community is forged. She also is a member of the steering committee for the Institute on Project-Based Learning.

The Gordon Prize was established in 2001 as a biennial prize acknowledging new modalities and experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders. Recognizing the potential to spur a revolution in engineering education, NAE announced in 2003 that the prize would be awarded annually.

Founded in 1964, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering is a private, independent, nonprofit institution that provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. Its mission is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

Laura Ascione