This summary is adapted from one which was distributed to the WPI community.
Sixty-one faculty, students (new and returning), alumni, administrators, staff, and secondary school teachers spent four days assessing the current situation and envisioning new scenarios for the first-year experience. They were guided by professional facilitators through a process known as future search, which helps diverse groups find common ground to solve complex problems.
The formal outcomes of the search conference include a set of design concepts for a better first year, action plans to refine and implement those ideas, and a wealth of data about external and internal forces, expectations, alternatives, and dilemmas. Less tangible but no less important is the sense of commitment and community among the diverse group of volunteers who participated in the conference.
Working as a group and in smaller mixed teams of seven or eight, the participants began by assessing past and present influences on the first year. Various constituent groups like faculty and students explored differences in needs and desires for the first year. Individual new and returning students described to the entire group issues and challenges of key importance to them.
Small teams that mixed faculty, students, administrators, graduates, and secondary school teachers built on the resulting information base of external forces and internal needs and expectations to describe ideal future scenarios for the first year. The entire group extracted from these scenarios common themes defining an ideal first year. The participants also identified attractive ideas that appeared in only one or two of the future scenarios.
The common first-year themes that proved most popular included: no declaration of major in the first year; first-year project work; learning to think and to learn through active and cooperative learning in courses; building a sound social life (used in the broad sense of overall personal development) around a student center as well as integration of social and academic life; use of information and technology resources; capitalizing on increased diversity and on gender equity; enhanced student-faculty relationships; interdisciplinary studies including integration of material between courses (e.g. math/physics); hands-on experience; and an orientation program extended and integrated into the academic year. The most attractive unique themes were local community involvement, long term student learning groups, partnering first-year students with upper-class students completing the senior project in their discipline, and additional free electives.
These themes were transformed into eight design goals, and mixed groups of seven or eight faculty, students, graduates, administrators, staff, and teachers designed a first-year program that optimized a single goal. For example, one group designed a first year that maximized student exploration of careers, majors, and courses. Another sought to maximize the development of students as learners while a third coupled small group living and learning experiences with an orientation program that was extended and integrated into the academic year.
The full group analyzed each of the single criterion designs before breaking into new mixed groups to design first-year programs that met all of the design goals. All participants voted for their favorites from among these ``best of everything'' designs, and mixed groups conducted a ``treasure hunt'' among the designs not selected to capture other good ideas worth preserving.
The most popular design clustered students in groups and provided guidance in personal development modeled after WPI's Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Program, which assists students from underrepresented groups. This support was linked to academic activities, including a project at the end of the first year that would be proposed by students and would demonstrate mastery of course material. The next most popular design also emphasized group experiences but left participation optional, in recognition of concerns that program changes not simply add new expectations to an already busy year.
Analyzing these designs also revealed a number of dilemmas requiring resolution, such as balancing required work with student selected options.
The final steps in the search process assessed the participants' commitment to action. Since that proved strong, the group then identified and planned the action steps necessary to complete the reinvigoration of the first year. Establishing a Steering Committee was one of those action steps.