Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

ASEE Regional Meeting, West Point


The Great Problems Seminars are a new program designed to engage Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s first-year students with current events, societal problems, and human needs. Each seminar starts with an important global problem and helps students to find a place where they can make real progress, no matter how small, in solving the problem.

Four WPI faculty representing Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, and Humanities developed and delivered two Great Problems Seminars in 2007. Feed the World explored the chemical, ethical, physiological and economic dimensions of a (simple) question: Why do we eat what we eat? The students completed projects on subjects ranging from hunger in Worcester to controlling fertilizer runoff. Power the World focused on the physics, history, and the environmental and economic impact of energy technologies. The students completed projects ranging from an energy cost analysis of green roofs and photovoltaic systems for WPI to air pollution in China.

This paper will describe the final student projects as well as the smaller projects and activities designed to help students develop the intellectual skills needed for research and professional work, including clear, succinct writing, oral presentation, pair and small group discussion, and the ability to take and understand multiple-perspectives. Perhaps the most important “finding” is that first-year students can do much more than we (or they) expect.

Conference Title

ASEE Northeast Section 2008