This engineering college embraces the humanities
Worcester, Mass. — Visitors to this campus, where students and faculty talk about IQPs, MQPs, and The Plan, might suspect they had stumbled upon a subversive plot or an extraterrestrial fan club.
But the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute houses no nest of conspirators. Worcester Tech (WPI) is a small engineering college with its own approach to educating its own brand of engineers, engineers who are not only competent in their engineering, but also comfortable in the humanities and social sciences.
WPI's approach is called The Plan. Developed about 10 years ago, it was the school's response to the charges that science and technology had become isolated in a version of an ivory tower made of pocket calculators, gears, and silicon chips.
''Engineers have the reputation of being illiterate,'' said Fern Amuan, a junior in mechanical engineering. WPI is fighting that reputation.
''We want to have bright, capable people who can do good engineering,'' explained Lance Schachterle, an English professor. ''But to have engineers who can only do engineering is ultimately self-defeating.''
Well-educated engineers need to be more than skilled technicians said faculty members in recent interviews. They also need to know how nontechnical knowledge is obtained and used, and they need to understand the role technology plays in society.
How does a school produce such graduates? At WPI they think The Plan does it.
Under The Plan there are no required courses or letter grades. There is no graduation by simply stacking up enough courses and credit hours on a transcript.
Degree candidates must prove they can do the engineering:
* They must pass a week-long oral and written competency exam in their senior year.
* They must complete work called a Major Qualifying Project (MQP) that applies theoretical knowledge to a real problem in engineering.
And they must do more:
* They must also do an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) that relates technology to society.
* They must complete a ''Sufficiency'' in the humanities, a series of six thematically related courses leading to a final project.
It is the two latter requirements that have engineering students doing things one might not expect them to do: for example, writing papers entitled ''A Short Dissertation on the Taoist Idea of Yin-Yang and Wu Wei,'' composing and recording music, painting murals, and collecting oral histories from former textile mill workers.
Teaching liberal arts courses to engineers requires no tricks or gimmicks, said Mr. Schachterle, who added that he finds little difference between WPI students and liberal arts students at other colleges where he has taught.
The Plan has not changed classroom teaching techniques, said James Hanlon of the history department. Professors use the same composite of lectures, discussion, readings, exams, and term papers found on other campuses.
What has changed under The Plan is the role of nontechnical subjects at the school. With that change, said faculty members, student attitudes toward the humanities have become more positive.
''By making those requirements compulsory, we are telling them (the students) that those areas of study are just as important,'' said Stephen Weininger, a chemistry professor who was active in designing The Plan.
Before The Plan, students at WPI, like other engineering students, took roughly eight courses in the humanities and social sciences. ''It used to be you just took English 101,'' Mr. Weininger said. ''It was kind of like castor oil. Somebody told you it was good for you so you took it.''
Today students have to sit down with an adviser and plan a cohesive program that leads to a major independent project. Dave Krafcsik, for example, took courses in literary analysis, fiction, and modern literature before writing a paper on conflict between the individual and society.
The goal of the humanities Sufficiency is not to give students a survey-course exposure to the liberal arts, said Schachterle, but to provide knowledge in one area and to cultivate an interest students can carry away with their diplomas.
''We sacrificed breadth,'' he said.
Students said there is still grumbling in the dormitories, but most agree they end up enjoying the break from engineering courses.
''A lot of students don't like it because thy don't want to deal with humanities at all,'' said John Whittaker, an electrical engineering major working on a paper about foreign policy toward Poland.
In general, students take humanities more seriously, said Mr. Hanlon. ''It used to be you would have to take three or four credits and get a gentleman's or a lady's 'C.' Now you have to do a project, to develop it in depth,'' he said.
The IQP also requires students to leave their technical towers, but in a different way. It requires them to take their technical skills with them and to use them.
The IQP is designed to make students sensitive to societal problems and issues and to help them understand how technology fits into the rest of the world.
Students apply their skills to projects involving the environment, energy, urban and regional development, transportation, bioethics, economic growth, social services, and education. Many of the projects have led to concrete contributions to local businesses and museums.
The Plan has been good for them, too, faculty members said. Faculty from the humanities departments enjoy a new status. Rather than function as a service department, they tend now to be more involved and to be on more important committees, said Schachterle.
Departments have grown. David McKay used to teach English and conduct the glee club. His music department now serves about 70 students and offers a variety of courses.
''The Plan made it,'' he said, explaining that by allowing students and faculty to develop interests freely, the school has provided an opportunity for the humanities to grow.
''One of the pleasures of this is, you get to work with people outside your area,'' said Weininger.
There are also some things The Plan has not changed at WPI. It is still, first of all, an engineering school. There is not a group of humanities majors at WPI planning to go to graduate school in history or art.
''If you are in a liberal arts college you have a group of majors and they set a tone of interest,'' said Mr. McKay.
The Plan grew out of the general opening up of education in the late 1960s, said Weininger, and took hold because there was some dissatisfaction within the faculty.
''Why come to WPI, we were asking,'' he said. ''What are we going to do for students?''
The Plan has worked and survived, in part, said Roger Perry, the director of public relations, because it came from the faculty, who developed and refined it before it was first offered to students in 1971.
In its first year, 85 percent of the freshmen chose The Plan at the beginning of the year and more came on board during the year. The transition was complete in three years.
''It has been a godsend to this place,'' Mr. Perry said. ''From the very beginning it attracted people.''
When national engineering enrollments dropped in the 1970s, WPI's numbers remained constant, he said. And the school has a higher number of students selecting it as their first choice.
The Plan was one factor that brought her to WPI, said Fern Amuan. ''It wasn't just a technical college,'' she explained.