Practice Beats Preaching
Employers demand graduates with professional skills. What’s our response?
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) recently released the results of a national survey of business and nonprofit leaders concerning their priorities in hiring college graduates. Not surprisingly, more than 90 percent said they were looking for individuals who could help their organizations innovate, think critically, communicate clearly, solve complex problems, and apply knowledge in real-world settings. They also wanted people who demonstrated ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and a capacity for continued learning.
Such core competencies seem particularly relevant now that the tide has turned for America’s young scientists and engineers, and jobs in STEM-based fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are rising. But the AAC&U survey suggests we also should focus on quality, not just quantity. What must schools do to produce more innovators and problem solvers with the knowledge, skills, experience, and character that industry requires?
It’s a two-fold challenge: We must attract and retain more top students in STEM degree programs and teach STEM disciplines in a way that produces a more effective engineer or scientist. The percentage of American students completing STEM majors is declining. The decrease is particularly notable among women and minorities. Why the diminishing interest? Every recent study pinpoints teaching methodology as the prime culprit. The “lecture and lab” approach is especially ineffective and off-putting to women and minorities.
Despite evidence that project-based learning can increase interest and engagement in STEM, the transition has been much too slow. A survey of Worcester Polytechnic Institute alumni completed last summer supports the project-based approach while underscoring the need for a more urgent transition throughout higher education.
The WPI survey was designed to evaluate the impact of the institution’s focus on project-based learning, known as the WPI Plan, since its inception 40 years ago. The plan’s philosophy is simple: Students learn best when they apply their learning to solve real-world problems. All WPI students complete team projects that typically take them off campus – from nearby Worcester to Wuhan, China – to develop solutions for organizations, companies, or communities. They begin working on projects in their first year, applying knowledge as it is learned. Teams of undergraduates have re-engineered Venice’s cargo delivery system, researched and improved data collection on ATV injuries for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and helped the Coast Guard improve inspections. The social benefit and context of their work, as well as the interaction with those they are working to help, keeps them engaged and inspired.
Responding to the survey, WPI alumni credited the project-based curriculum with improving their professional abilities, including the ability to develop ideas, integrate information, and solve problems. They developed better oral and written communication skills, team and project management skills, and leadership ability. Real-world projects also fostered greater awareness of the connections between technology and society as well as a broader worldview and understanding of other cultures. Perhaps most striking, students emerged with a stronger sense of personal ethics and responsibility. In short, project-based learning experiences were the source of precisely the skills, experience, and character development called for in the 2013 AAC&U study. Considering that more than 95 percent of WPI students return for a second year – the vast majority majoring in STEM fields – it seems plausible that the project-based approach also played a significant role in keeping those alumni engaged in their majors and headed toward degrees.
While beneficial to all alumni, real-world, project-based learning proved especially empowering, inspiring, and rewarding for women. In subsequent in-depth interviews, female graduates expressed appreciation for the real-world project experience and its impact on launching their careers and improving their professional skills and abilities.
In the decade since education and policy leaders began calling for project-based STEM learning, secondary schools have led the way in transitioning and adopting this highly effective way of engaging students in science and engineering. It’s time for America’s colleges and universities to make the same commitment.
Opinion By Rick Vaz
Rick Vaz is dean of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division