The Interdisciplinary, Project-Based Infrastructure Degradation Curriculum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The Interdisciplinary, Project-Based Infrastructure Degradation Curriculum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Aaron Sakulich (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA), Tahar El-Korchi (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA) and Richard D. Sisson Jr. (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8183-5.ch004
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In 2014, a new graduate-level course on infrastructure degradation was offered jointly by the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), USA. Over the course of the fourteen-week graduate term, seven professors from both departments offered lectures on their particular area of expertise. Together with conventional homework assignments, the course incorporated a multidisciplinary project aspect where students were divided into teams and assigned an infrastructure system. The students prepared detailed presentations on a specific aspect of the degradation methods affecting their infrastructure system. These presentations culminated in the first ever WPI Degradation Symposium, in which each student team presented a poster based on their research. This chapter outlined the motivation behind, experience with, and lessons learned from this course, which may serve as a model in corrosion education as such issues become more important with the continuing decay of the worldwide built environment.
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Since 1970 WPI has carried out undergraduate education through interdisciplinary team projects. Project-based education at WPI begins in the student’s freshman year. An optional course entitled “The Great Problems Seminar” focuses on issues of global importance. The theme varies each year, with recent examples of “Heal the World”, “Power the World”, and “Feed the World”. Students form interdisciplinary teams to investigate specific areas of these topics, culminating in a poster presentation day.

Junior and senior year projects are referred to as the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) and Major Qualifying Project (MQP), respectively. During each project, teams of up to four students are directly mentored by faculty advisors. Many teams are multidisciplinary, and many have multiple advisors from different disciplines. The projects are significant undertakings, the equivalent of three courses; students work roughly 20 hours per week for a total of 21 weeks. The students periodically deliver their findings through formal reports and oral presentations. In the words of a reviewer during an ABET accreditation visit: “Work produced by [undergraduate] students during their [MQP] is of postgraduate quality, and most of those reviewed could easily serve as master’s theses in many institutions.”

The IQP is a nine-credit-hour equivalent project involving applied research that connects science or technology with social issues and human needs. These projects are generally carried out in interdisciplinary teams, advised by one or more professors from various departments. Students submit written or oral reports to project stakeholders. WPI has articulated a number of learning objectives for the students: At the end of the IQP, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the project’s technical, social and humanistic context;

  • Define clear, achievable goals and objectives for the project;

  • Critically identify, utilize, and properly cite information sources, and integrate information from multiple sources to identify appropriate approaches to addressing the project goals;

  • Select and implement a sound approach to solving an interdisciplinary problem;

  • Analyze and synthesize results from social, ethical, humanistic, technical or other perspectives, as appropriate;

  • Maintain effective working relationships within the project team and with the project advisor(s), recognizing and resolving problems that may arise;

  • Demonstrate the ability to write clearly, critically and persuasively;

  • Demonstrate strong oral communication skills, using appropriate, effective visual aids; and,

  • Demonstrate an awareness of the ethical dimensions of their project work.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Materials Science: The study of matter.

Civil Engineering: The field of engineering that is dedicated to the creation and maintenance of the structures and systems that are critical to the welfare of humanity.

Industry Preparation: The act of complementing students’ academic knowledge with the practical field skills that will be the centerpiece of their future employment activities.

Sustainability: The ability to meet current needs without limiting the ability to meet future needs or identify new critical areas.

Interdisciplinary Study: An educational methodology that transcends the traditional boundaries between professions, combining elements from each into a cohesive whole.

Infrastructure Degradation: The inevitable deterioration of physical systems critical to the welfare of society over time, due to thermal, chemical, and mechanical effects.

Built Environment: The physical infrastructure that provides basic needs to people.

Project-Based Education: An innovative pedagogical methodology that replaces conventional lecture-driven coursework with hands-on, immersive experiences.

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