When researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute began surveying alumni to assess how their project-based curriculum impacted their students in the long term, they simply hoped to see that students did well after graduating.
That appeared to be true. But what also emerged was evidence that WPI's approach to engineering education appeared to be substantially more effective for women, suggesting that a project-based curriculum may boost female success in the science, technology, mathematics and engineering fields.
The survey included graduates from across the disciplines who graduated between 1974 (the first class to graduate after WPI redesigned its curriculum to focus on project-based learning) and 2011. But a subsequent study focused on some of the most intriguing data, which emerged from a subset of 1,763 engineering graduates, 78 percent of whom were male.
"In some sense, it's perhaps a more self-selected audience," said Richard F. Vaz, dean of interdisciplinary and global studies at WPI, referring to the fact that more than 9 in 10 of his students already graduate and thus might be more responsive to academic challenge in general. "But we've got a lot of evidence showing that this is a curriculum that is appealing to students, that it doesn't turn them off, it doesn't drive them away."
Although women hold nearly half the jobs in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, they occupy less than 25 percent of those in the STEM fields. While 40 percent of male STEM graduates move on to a job in those fields, the same is true for only 26 percent of STEM degree-holding women.
Project-based learning gets students out of the classroom to solve real-life, open-ended problems. At WPI, students complete two projects, worth nine credit hours each: one addressing an interdisciplinary problem and one addressing a problem in the student's major field.
There are thousands of options. Students have been going to Venice for 25 years to work with city government on canal dredging, sustainable tourism policies, and public art preservation. In Washington, they recommend safety policies for products to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. In Santa Fe, students work with pueblos to develop technologies that help young tribal members capture disappearing languages.
Faculty advise the projects, but act more as facilitators and coaches than instructors. Rather, students work with "sponsors" or "clients" outside WPI, who have their own problem that needs solving. For example, AIDS Project Worcester has local students develop nutritional community gardens for its clients.
The target learning outcomes of the curriculum include problem-solving and research skills, application of knowledge in context, communication and effective teamwork. But as Vaz's study showed, the outcomes were even more pronounced for women, who appeared to gain more in the three dozen or so aspects of personal and professional development.
For example, 63 percent of women said the program helped them understand the connections between technology and society "much" or "very much," compared to just half of men. Sixty-six percent of women said the curriculum helped them "be an effective leader"; 54 percent of men did. More than 70 percent of women said it taught them to function effectively in the real world, compared to 62 percent of men, and 57 percent of women said the projects helped them speak clearly and effectively, as opposed to 48 percent. Also, 77 and 76 percent of women said it helped them develop ideas and solve problems, respectively, compared to 69 and 68 percent of men.
The only areas in which women reported gains similar to men were related to technical skills more easily obtained in traditional course work; for example, using current technology or mastering fundamental concepts and methods.
Context suggests these findings shouldn't exactly be a surprise. In the study, Vaz and his co-authors -- Paula Quinn, an independent evaluation consultant at Quinn Evaluation Consulting; WPI math professor Arthur C. Heinricher; and WPI associate professor of social science and policy studies Kent J. Rissmiller -- note previous research finding that women are more motivated by social context and collaboration.
"It makes sense that girls would find more value in [project-based learning]," said Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, "given that women tend to care more about the social relevance of the work they do."
Of course, while project-based learning might work well for women who study STEM in college, part of the reason a gender gap exists in the STEM fields is that female students don't pursue the disciplines in the first place.
But if these concepts could be integrated into the high school classroom, or in the engineering summer camps that WPI and other institutions host, it could help get more girls studying STEM in college, Vaz and others said.
"They get excited about it and they can begin to see, 'Ah, this is how I fit into this,' " said Tricia Berry, director of the women in engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin. "It does draw them in, and helps them not only to apply to those STEM fields but to stay in and graduate and go on to the work force."
Vaz believes the WPI curriculum could work at a major research university such as Texas, so long as administrators don't just "tack this on." WPI, after all, built its entire curriculum around problem-based work. When they began in the 1970s, some "traditional" professors even left the institution, he said.
"They will face challenges," if administrators employ such programming haphazardly, Vaz said. "But if they can recognize that this type of learning experience is more powerful and build it into the curriculum in ways that it's displacing traditional learning with problem-based learning, then I think it's scaleable."
Randy Weinstein, associate dean for academic affairs at Villanova University's College of Engineering, has already seen how such programming can impact students. About six years ago, Villanova redesigned its freshman-level engineering sequence to be entirely project-based. Since then, the university's population of female engineering students has grown "significantly" (it is 10 percent higher than the national average), he said, and the change definitely has something to do with it.
Weinstein credits the teamwork and social awareness the approach affords, but added that employing female professors helps, as well. That way, women can see both in their group work and in the classroom at large that engineering is not just a man's field anymore.
Many Texas professors already incorporate some measure of problem-based course work, at the senior level especially, Berry said. But because of the university's size, it involves lots of capitalizing on existing opportunities: internships, research, student organizations, etc. Not every student team will necessarily be working on something different.
"I think you just have to get creative," Berry said.