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Transforming Higher Education through Project-Based Learning


Students begin preparing for life after graduation the moment they step on campus their first year. Their time as undergraduates is valuable and limited—in just a few short years, they will prepare for careers, citizenship, family responsibilities, and whatever else life brings, while exploring their interests, building relationships, and developing a sense of purpose.

How can higher education institutions best position students for the challenges and opportunities they will encounter, professionally and personally? Research suggests that repeated exposure to high-impact practices such as project-based learning is the answer.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has featured a project-based curriculum for almost 50 years, helping students become effective collaborators, innovators, and global citizens through team-centered project work. Students work extensively on projects in and out of the classroom, both on campus and in communities around the globe. Along the way they build an understanding of other people and their own potential to impact the world for the better. Based on that experience, WPI is looking to help other colleges and universities advance project-based learning on their campuses.

Why Project-Based Learning?

In a curriculum built around project work, students—guided, rather than directed, by faculty—gain responsibility for their own learning by tackling tangible, open-ended problems faced by real people. In doing so, they develop key skills and abilities that will serve them in the future:

  • Collaboration: An emphasis on group projects helps students learn to work effectively with people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and to value what others have to offer.
  • Communication: Project work helps students learn to communicate effectively in oral, written, and visual forms to a variety of audiences—peers, faculty, and external stakeholders.
  • Problem Solving: Real-world problems are unscripted, complex, and don’t respect disciplinary boundaries. Project-based learning challenges students to draw on a range of knowledge and skills to approach open-ended problems in innovative ways.
  • Personal Attributes: Tackling authentic problems that matter to others has the power to motivate students to do their best work, developing attributes such as perseverance, empathy, and self-efficacy.

“When challenges are presented to students by community organizations or other external parties, the problems become embedded within a real cultural, social, and economic context, with implications for stakeholders. Students have to learn how to consider a wide range of viewpoints and factors to address the problems,” explains Rick Vaz, director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning.

Is It Effective?

So much evidence shows that this type of education can benefit every student in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership.

Project-based learning involves changing the roles that students and faculty may be used to, taking them out of their comfort zones in some cases. Such changes are not easy, but decades of research have shown that project-based learning and other high-impact practices result in greater student learning gains than traditional instruction, particularly for students in underrepresented groups. “So much evidence shows that this type of education can benefit every student in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership,” says Vaz. The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Study shows that completing a significant project during college is correlated with greater career and life satisfaction.

In a 2012 survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, over 2,500 WPI alumni spanning 38 years of graduates attributed a wide range of professional and personal benefits and long-term impacts to their project work, ranging from interpersonal and communication skills to cultural awareness and expanded world views to confidence and self-efficacy.

Of those who responded on the impact of their project experiences:


One alumnus observed, “To have something that really takes you out of your comfort zone … where you can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen … helped me become a stronger person as I headed out of college.”

In 2016 the National Academy of Engineering recognized WPI with the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education for the WPI Plan, the university’s landmark project-based learning model launched in 1970.

Why Does It Matter?

More than ever, higher education needs to prepare students not just for their first jobs, but for lives and careers that are difficult to predict. Per Randy Bass, Georgetown University’s vice provost for education, “As machines get better at being machines, the primary purpose of education has to be helping humans get better at being human.” It’s no surprise that employers place high value on broad, transferrable skills such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving.

Project-based learning gives students the chance to develop those skills, and it also challenges them to be adaptable, flexible thinkers. Project work may not always go according to plan or have a single clear-cut solution, and students may have to fail before succeeding in order to complete their tasks.

“The most pressing problems facing mankind are messy and interdisciplinary, demanding solutions that are based on an understanding of science and technology, culture and communities, economics and history,” Vaz explains. “I can think of no more relevant purpose for higher education than to prepare students to tackle ill-defined, complex problems. That requires more than academic preparation—it requires personal experience and the development of a sense of mission.”

Ready to Transform Higher Education?


Since the launch of WPI’s project-based curriculum in 1970, the university has been a pioneer in experiential learning, and, through the Center for Project-Based Learning, is committed to sharing its expertise for the betterment of higher education through a range of support for colleges and universities.

The Center’s flagship offering, the Institute on Project-Based Learning, is an intensive workshop where teams from colleges and universities of all types work with expert coaches to create action plans to advance project-based learning in their courses and programs. In partnership with AAC&U, the Institute is held annually at the WPI campus in Worcester, Massachusetts.

More than 90 institutions have sent teams to the Institute since 2015—several, including Wake Forest University (WFU), have sent multiple teams. “The teams have returned to campus with focused plans for advancing project work in our curriculum,” says Michele Gillespie, Dean of the College at WFU. “I’d recommend the experience to any college or university that wants to make its curriculum more engaging and powerful for students and faculty.”

Applications are now being accepted for the 2019 Institute on Project-Based Learning, to be held June 18–21, 2019.

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