EPIC Learning – 07 January 2014

provost —  January 7, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

After numerous discussions with faculty, department chairs, deans and the Faculty Federation and administration negotiating teams, it is obvious that I have not been as clear in my communications about our move to EPIC Learning as I thought I was.  I’m sure that some of this is due to my discussing my long-term vision of education in the future, something that I called the “logical extreme,” and the confusion that occurs when those long-range ideas are seen as being necessary for us to achieve in the next three years instead of the next twenty.  I will admit that I get carried away when I see the potential of what all of you can contribute to the career success of our students.  So, I will try to explain the proposed path for the next two or three years here and also give a brief outline of the next twenty.  Twenty years is a long time and many things will change between now and then.  We’ll be learning along the way.  That is certain.  And as we learn, the changes we make will make our students better and more successful.

First, though, it’s important to know that I am always open to hearing your comments about any of this.  One of the things that I am personally comfortable with is making changes as we learn more about what we’re doing.  As far as I am concerned, we can’t get better unless we assess the results of our actions, are willing to see and acknowledge not only weaknesses, but mistakes, and then make the corrections needed to make things better.  In a time of great change this may seem unsettling since the path to our goal becomes a meandering one and not a direct line from A to B.  However, the improvements made along the way cannot be overvalued.

If we look back over the past four and half years, the terms we have used have changed many times.  I think each change more clearly defined and improved our ability to understand our common goals.  Long before we began using the phrase “EPIC Learning (Externally collaborative, Project-based, Interdisciplinary Curricula for Learning),” we talked about “multidisciplinary teaching.”  How and why did we change every word, some more than once?

We agreed that the learning that our students achieve is actually more important than the teaching that we do.  We are trying to educate great engineers, technologists, designers and managers that contribute to making the world a better place.  Their ability to achieve career success is our fundamental goal.  So learning is more fundamental and important than teaching, even though excellent teaching is one of the ways to achieve excellent learning.

We discovered that the word multidisciplinary implies specialists from different disciplines working on the same problem sequentially, not necessarily together as a team.  Interdisciplinary, on the other hand, means working together on the same problem at the same time.  So we began talking about interdisciplinary learning instead of multidisciplinary teaching.

Wentworth, though, has always been extraordinary in its commitment to “hands-on learning,” even when other schools moved away from it.  They’ve now realized their mistake and are moving back towards what we’ve been doing all along.  We know that to succeed, you must learn, and that to truly learn, you must do.  There is direct data supporting this from sixty years of study in pedagogy, neurobiology and by direct observation.  So we added the term “project-based.”

When the new strategic plan was developed in 2012, faculty pointed out that our projects were based on real-world problems and that we should continue to work closely with our industrial partners.  Our graduates were known everywhere for their ability to immediately contribute to their employers success when they were hired.  They are “shovel-ready.”  “Industry-collaborative” was added by the Strategic Planning Committee.  One of the strategies of the new strategic plan was to implement what was now called industry-collaborative, interdisciplinary, project-based learning, or I2PBL.  The faculty led group working on this strategy realized that we do many kinds of collaboration, not only with industrial partners, but with other universities, hospitals, governments, non-profit organizations, communities, etc.  They recommended changing the wording to externally collaborative to reflect this wider circle of partners.

EIPBL, however, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.  Marc Neveu from architecture coined the phrase “EPIC Learning” – Externally collaborative, Project-based Interdisciplinary Curricula for Learning.

It’s been a long, meandering journey for us all, but a worthwhile one that has importantly and fundamentally clarified our thinking and our goals along the way.  The rapidity with which we’ve all started using the phrase EPIC Learning speaks to our being much closer to getting it right.

The Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal in our strategic plan is “By 2032, to be nationally recognized as the university of choice for EPIC Learning.”  (OK, I paraphrased it a bit here!)  2032 was chosen because it’s twenty years after the start of the strategic plan.  Twenty years.  Not next week, not next semester, not next year, not even the next decade.  Twenty years.  When I spoke to some of the departments about where I see Wentworth going in the future, what I see as our final goal, I was speaking about where we might be in 2032, not in Fall 2015.  However, to achieve our BHAG by 2032, we have to start moving in that direction now – as Lao Tzu said, “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.”  The sooner we start moving, the more time we’ll have to get it right.

In the last four and a half years, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hurdle to implementing EPIC Learning has been identified as problems with scheduling.  I don’t know how many of you remember, but when I first joined Wentworth in 2009, it took one to two weeks for class schedules to settle down at the beginning of each semester.  We weren’t even getting the room assignments right.  Most of that has gone away due to the hard work of the faculty, chairs, deans and the registrar’s office.  However, it seemed like every time we began to discuss taking that first step towards implementing EPIC Learning, scheduling conflicts were cited as the primary reason that it couldn’t be done.  After trying to work through this issue (with some minor successes) for multiple years, it became obvious to many of us that a different approach than just patching things together was needed.  Putting patches on patches does not lead to a robust system.

Therefore, as one possible way around this impasse, we can set aside a half a day a week where we can make sure that our student schedules allow us the time needed to make EPIC Learning a reality.  A common time block can be used by all of you in whatever way you need it to be used to begin to implement some form of EPIC Learning.  “Small steps, Ellie, small steps.”  The journey begins with the first step.  The half a day a week was designed to help you overcome what appears to many of you to be an insurmountable obstacle.  I encourage all of you to be innovative in how this time is used.  The time and the scheduling should be used as you see fit to use it.  Not all schedules need to be changed.  In fact, since we won’t do this until the Fall 2015 semester, we have almost two years to figure out how best to achieve our goals.

Let me try to be as absolutely clear here as possible, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions that have been heard.  By Fall of 2015, we should put into place opportunities for all of our students to participate in some form of EPIC Learning.  This does not mean that all of the courses we teach will have all of the components.  This does not mean that we will no longer do any lecturing starting in Fall 2015.  This does not mean that every course will have externally collaborative projects by Fall 2015.  This does not mean that all courses will be interdisciplinary by Fall 2015.

Just now and at the Wentworth Community Meeting at the beginning of the Fall semester, I quoted the movie Contact – “Small steps, Ellie, small steps.”  We can’t just magically change everything all at once.  However, we can continue moving in this direction.  We have already taken our first steps.  There are EPIC Learning courses that have already been taught and are scheduled to be taught in the future in all of our colleges.  At the risk of leaving many of our successes unmentioned, I will note just a few: the Introduction to Engineering course, the new course using the Medfield State Hospital site, collaborations between math and engineering, between engineering technology and computer science, between manufacturing and industrial design, between interior design and architecture, between construction management and architecture and interior design.  Just before the holiday break there was a meeting to discuss a General Electric – Wentworth Center of Excellence.  The list of steps that have already been taken is very long.  This means that hundreds of our students are already involved in some form of EPIC Learning.  We may not have as far to go to achieve success in Fall 2015 as we think we do.

This is a good time to point out that the possibility of 0-4-2 courses during that half day is only one possible example of how to implement EPIC Learning.  I know that I said that having such courses is one possible solution.  However, it is not the only possible solution!  I know that I have told several departments and everyone at the Wentworth Community Meeting that 0-4-2 courses are the only solution.

I have been asked if there is a specific process to achieve EPIC Learning.  My answer has always been no.  There are currently 150 full-time faculty lines in our thirteen departments.  One hundred and fifty of you are certainly more intelligent, innovative and faster moving than I can be on my own!  I am sure you will invent approaches that I never would, even in my wildest imagination.  I know that you will be so innovative, so clever, and so involved with our students that I and everyone else will be amazed.

As we move forward, we should use our imagination and innovation to produce superior results for our students.  Experimentation is highly encouraged!  Not all of these experiments will work.  Faculty will not be punished for trying out new approaches.  Some will work and some won’t.  We learn at least as much from experiments that don’t work as we do from those that do work.  I have never taught a class the same way twice.  I know that there is always room for improvement.  Nothing is perfect.  Even astronauts, who are the world’s most highly trained people, make mistakes about 2% of the time.

The provosts, deans and department chairs have been working the entire Fall semester on the scheduling of the half-day in Fall 2015 and achieving our BHAG by 2032.  A few words about this work are appropriate here and you should take a look at the implementation schedule below.  The Fall 2013 semester was used by the chairs and deans to identify the most important steps needed to allow us to most effectively implement EPIC Learning for all students in the Fall 2015 semester.  The Spring 2014 semester will be used by the faculty in the departments to plan changes.  Summer and Fall 2014 are available to prepare any curricular changes that might be necessary.  Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 are for obtaining the ICC approvals (if needed) so that changes can be submitted to the registrar.

EPIC Learning Two Year Timeline - 131218

(please click on the image to see a full-size version)

Seen on a longer timeline, some form of EPIC Learning opportunity will begin for all students in Fall 2015.  We can review these initial trials and improve them for the Fall 2016 semester and begin expanding EPIC Learning, if it’s successful, in Fall 2017.  We have from Fall 2017 to Fall 2027 for the development of a full EPIC Learning approach.  Finally, we have the five years from 2027 to 2032 to achieve our BHAG, national recognition as the university of choice for EPIC Learning.

EPIC Learning Twenty Year Timeline - 131218

(please click on the image to see a full-size version)

Best Regards,