During the 1993-94 academic year, many on the WPI campus recognized that the experiences of WPI's first-year students presented special challenges and opportunities. Those individual threads of interest were brought together in June of 1994 in a four-day future search conference whose theme was The Challenge of the First Year: Reinventing the Beginning.
Beyond the first-year concerns common to many campuses, WPI faced special challenges, most of them arising from its project-oriented curriculum. All students must complete three large, open-ended projects: a substantial paper or similar work as the culmination of a sequence of courses in the humanities; a project that simultaneously confronts both technical and social issues (often at an off-campus project site); and a project in the major discipline. Students often work in teams on the later two projects. The social and intellectual demands of these activities are significant, especially when added to a base of challenging courses in science, social sciences, humanities and mathematics. Preparing for these key elements of the WPI program is a primary challenge of the first year.
The sixty-one volunteers who attended the search conference represented sixteen ``server'' faculty from the service departments (mathematics, sciences, social sciences, humanities) that do most of the first-year teaching, nine ``client'' faculty from the departments housing most of the majors (engineering, management), eleven academic and student affairs administrators, seven secondary school faculty, four entering first-year students, eleven current students, and three recent graduates.
When they were invited to the conference, the participants were challenged by such questions as:
During the conference, the participants inventoried internal and external forces acting on WPI and on the first year as well as the needs and expectations for the first year of four groups: students, ``server'' faculty, ``client'' faculty, and administration. After identifying common ground and objectives for improving the first year, they developed criteria for the design of an improved first year and they created and evaluated some sample designs. The participants' final work was agreement on a coordination and follow-through strategy.
The future search conference was facilitated most effectively by Gil Steil, Jr. (93 Pembroke St., Boston, MA 02118, 617-262-4444) and Paul McGowan (39 Lakin St., Pepperell, MA 01463, 508-448-5693). It was supported in part by WPI's Educational Development Council.