WPI Students Solve Great Problems With Support from the Davis Educational Foundation

When most college freshmen are focused on prerequisites, first-year students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are engaged in solving societal problems of global consequence. Through the Great Problems Seminars, WPI freshmen address such topics as clean water, food security, significant public health issues, and energy challenges. Now, thanks to a $255,225 grant, from the Davis Educational Foundation, WPI is expanding this innovative program to include all freshmen students.

The Great Problems Seminars employ WPI’s distinctive project-based, multidisciplinary approach to solving real-world problems identified by the National Academy of Engineering as Grand Challenges. The aim of the seminars is not only to broaden students’ perspectives on the complexity of the challenges they will face after graduation, but also to create innovative and entrepreneurial professionals fully capable of tackling the great problems facing the world today.

“WPI shares the Davis Educational Foundation’s commitment to groundbreaking approaches to undergraduate education,” says Dennis Berkey, president and CEO of WPI. “This latest grant from the Davis Foundation is another demonstration of its confidence in WPI’s ability to continue cultivating engineers and scientists with the knowledge and wisdom to lead in an increasingly complex global society.”  

The Davis Educational Foundation was established by Stanton and Elisabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc.

Conceived as a gateway to project work in later years, the Great Problems Seminars were developed in response to feedback from students who praised WPI’s project-based curriculum but lamented the lack of opportunity for project work and preparation earlier in their WPI education.

“The Great Problems Seminars bring our first year experience so much more into alignment with the subsequent years at WPI,” says Kristin Wobbe, professor and associate dean of undergraduate studies. “We extend our deepest thanks to the Davis Educational Foundation for helping us continue to deliver an exceptional education to our students.” 

The seminars were first offered five years ago with two seminars—Feed the World and Power the World—and were expanded the next year with Heal the World, and Grand Challenges. The success of these seminars, as documented by the Donahue Institute, and student demand led to the addition of four more seminars: Educate the World, Living on the Edge, The World’s Water, and Global Health. With the support of the Davis Educational Foundation, the program will be expanded to 20 seminars so that every freshman—approximately 1,000 students—can benefit from this distinctive learning experience. The Davis Foundation funds will enable WPI to develop necessary course support materials and a robust annual assessment of the program, the faculty teaching the courses, and the impact on students to ensure the effectiveness of the seminars.

“We also hope that through the Great Problems Seminars, our students see their education not just as a pathway to a job but a pathway to a purpose, that they begin to understand that they can find a career where they can make a difference,” Wobbe adds.

She already has seen evidence of this kind of awakening in students who have participated in the Great Problems Seminars. She cites one student team whose seminar project focused on developing a business plan for a woman in Kenya who wanted to start a soap-making business. A year-and-a-half later, Wobbe notes, the students traveled to Kenya on their own to help her implement the plan. Student teams have been invited to present their work to municipal committees, and others have obtained provisional patents for devices they’ve created through the Great Problems Seminars.

Quantitatively, assessment of learning over the first five years shows that students who participated in the Great Problems Seminars are more engaged with current events and societal and human needs, are more information literate, showed improved teamwork skills, and had more opportunity to present and defend opinions and intellectual work. Importantly, these students also reported a stronger perception of the connections between social issues and science and technology. Some graduates also credit their post-college success to their early participation in the Great Problems Seminars. 

“The students aren’t necessarily going to solve the world’s problems in these classes,” says Wobbe, “but it’s clear to me from the stories of transformation that I hear from our students that this program is preparing our bright, talented young people to be effective contributors to solutions for our great problems in the future.”


About the Davis Educational Foundation

The Davis Educational Foundation, established as a public charitable foundation in 1985, supports the undergraduate programs of public and private, regionally accredited, baccalaureate degree granting colleges and universities throughout the six New England states. Elisabeth K. Davis and Stanton W. Davis co-founded the foundation after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc. The foundation is an expression of the couple’s shared support and value for higher education and has provided over $89 million in grants to more than 165 institutions. At WPI the Davis Educational Foundation also supported the Connected Laboratory Project, also an important part of the strategy to bring more engagement to the first year experience.