Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (visited 3/22/14)
Like other Polytechnics, WPI offers strong STEM programs, but is hardly limited to these. Why come here rather than a different polytechnic or a larger university? The students enthusiastically said, “Interaction between disciplines!” The flexible curriculum means that it’s not uncommon for cross-disciplinary majors and minors. Sarah, a senior who spoke at the info session, is a robotics major and history minor. She came here because of the flexibility and for the humanities and arts component. One of our tour guides was a Biochem major and Spanish minor. The other tour guide was a Civil Engineer doing his BS/MS in Fire Protection.
WPI prides itself on its curriculum that combines theory and practice, traditional classroom education with laboratory and hands-on experiences. Benefits include understanding global issues, developing teamwork skills, and communicating with others. Flexibility also comes into play in the distribution requirements. It’s recommended that students complete certain things, but how they get there is up to them. Students decide which classes to take and when (under the guidance of faculty advisors). Classes have “Recommended Backgrounds” but if they come in with that knowledge already (perhaps with AP or IB credit), they can skip the prereq.
The university’s non-punitive grading policy means that students earn grades of A, B, C, or No Record. Students retake classes to get rid of NRs so they actually learn the material. Additionally, there are no + or – in the grading system. A 92 and a 98 are both As. Students worry less about GPA, are more likely to work collaboratively, and are encouraged to take risks and challenge themselves. They help each other to learn as much as possible in labs, projects, or whatever they’re working on. Grades are heavily based on projects and presentations. Students can request a GPA when they graduate, but it’s not normally given out.
The school year is divided into four 7-week terms with an optional summer term; students take 3 classes per term. Forty-five classes are needed to graduate, but most students take 48. With that buffer, students take classes for fun or redo a class. One of the tour guides said that it did take some time to adjust to the quarter system but now she loves it.
- Great Problems Seminar, a first-year project addressing real-world problems: How do you break down issues into solvable pieces? This is optional, but most students complete it.
- Humanities and Arts is required, but has flexibility: students select courses in an area of interest culminating in a seminar or practicum.
- The Interactive Project: students study the impact of science and technology on society, looking at the larger picture. Students work interdisciplinarily with people outside the major.
- Major project.
- Team projects, often sponsored by companies, non-profits, or government agencies such as Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, London’s Museum of Science, Puerto Rico Tourism, UNESCO, US Patent and Trademark Office, Coast Guard, Gillette, Fidelity Investments, EPA, eBay, Deutsche Bank, Namibia’s Desert Research Foundation, Thailand’s Bureau of the Royal Household, or Children’s Hospital Costa Rica. This is the equivalent of 3 courses completed full-time in one term or part time over 3 terms. 60% of students complete this off campus; 50% go overseas. Study-Abroad locations are vetted for safety, housing, and academic standards.
- One project involved accompanying faculty to start a new site.
- One on-campus project was building a fountain. It sits flush with the ground; a sensor on a nearby roof reads wind speeds, and the height of the water adjusts based on the readings. Students like these sorts of projects and will do them for fun. The rep said, “You can build your own computer for all we care. That happens a lot . . . .”
Co-op programs are available but are underutilized compared to other universities. They usually last for 6-8 months, running through the summer and 1-2 terms. Students completing these usually come in with AP or IB credits. Even those students who don’t complete co-ops feel like they have solid resumes. They’re used to working in groups, in a tight time frame, and out of their comfort zone so employers like hiring them. Hundreds of career and grad-school recruiters come to campus every year. 90% of graduates are working in their chosen profession or in full-time Grad Programs (the rep said that “the career services person is stingy with that number”). Princeton Review ranks WPI’s career services 17th, and Payscale.com ranks WPI 15th for Return on Investment and 5th highest starting salaries among national universities.
Applicants must complete Pre-Calc in high school since WPI doesn’t offer that class. Admissions requires a math or science teacher rec in addition to the counselor letter. They are test-optional; students not wishing to submit scores submit something that shows organizational skills and commitment such as having completed extensive research, etc. Valedictorians, salutatorians, National Merit, National Achievement, and National Hispanic Recognition Finalists are guaranteed at least $20,000. They are need-blind for domestic applicants but need-aware for international students. 20% of the students come in as undecided (less than other schools).
First year housing is guaranteed. 97% of first-year students and 62% of total students live on campus (including on-campus apartments and suites). They had a wait-list of 24 students this year; they all got rooms. Many off-campus students live within 2-3 blocks (close enough for the school wireless). There are over 180 clubs including music and theater, community service, Greek life, art and lit, professional and honor societies, and ROTC (Army and Air Force at WPI, Navy at Holy Cross through the consortium). The T stop is a mile away; students can be in Boston in an hour.
WPI has developed the Insight Program as part of the First Year Experience. Every student gets assigned to a team during freshman orientation. The team gets a faculty advisor, resident advisors, and a peer advisor to help them be successful transitioning to college. 97% of freshmen return for sophomore year.