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The WPI Program - Starting from Scratch
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The WPI Program - Starting from Scratch

By David A. Lucht, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering

The original idea for the Worcester Polytechnic Institute master's degree fire protection engineering program evolved from the bottom up. It all started among undergraduate students in non-fire majors.

In 1970, the entire undergraduate curriculum was revamped into a hands-on, project-based approach to engineering education. The keystone was the junior project. Known as the Interactive Qualifying Project or "IQP", this junior year effort became a degree requirement for all undergraduate students. Equivalent to three courses of academic credit, it had to be taken very seriously.

The goal of the IQP was to give each student an in-depth experience at the intersection of technology and society. Working in small, interdisciplinary teams, students would tackle problems of social significance. For example, three students in mechanical engineering, computer science and mathematics might work on innovative approaches to supplying safe drinking water to a remote African village. The team would do a literature review and project proposal before beginning. Then they would work with local community members to find solutions, ending with a comprehensive written report and public presentations just like the "real world."

When the new curriculum was activated, the campus was suddenly filled with thousands of eager young minds searching for cool topics. And civil engineering professor Robert Fitzgerald ("Fitzie") was at the ready.

Through related work in building codes and civil defense preparedness, Fitzie had taken an interest in fire safety. Interacting with the Worcester Fire Department, he started advising IQPs on topics ranging from fire suppression, fire codes and communications to information systems and hazard assessments. As his project activities expanded, other faculty in a host of disciplines developed interest as well. Over 40 professors in traditional disciplines soon became involved in advising fire-related projects. Momentum had begun.

With time, the notion of starting a formal FPE master's degree program emerged. Fitzie worked with key faculty leaders, consulted with fire protection engineers in the industry and began formulating plans. Ultimately, WPI President Edmund Cranch authorized the hiring of a fire protection engineer to head a proposed new program. That's where I entered the picture.

I was then working as the Deputy Administrator of the United States Fire Administration. Previously I had worked as an insurance industry field engineer, fire test engineer at Ohio State University and as the Ohio State Fire Marshal. Unknown to me, Fitzie and colleagues had singled me out as one having a breadth of experience favorable to what they thought was needed. I was approached and hired in 1978 to head the new master's degree program.


At the time, WPI was only able to commit enough resources to cover my salary for one day each week. I was then hired to work the other four days at Firepro Incorporated, a nearby consulting firm. Firepro's founder, Rexford Wilson, was a co-conspirator with Fitzie.

Developing a full-fledged degree program from scratch was a daunting task. We had no FPE faculty, no courses, no students, no laboratory space or university-level textbooks and almost no money. In fact, the degree program itself still had not been approved by the faculty at large.

In 1979 the university faculty voted to authorize the master of science fire protection engineering degree and approved nine course descriptions. Now we were "legal." In the early years, area professionals were recruited to teach courses in the evenings. Students were mainly local practicing engineers who had day jobs.


With time, the program grew in size, enabling me to move to full-time status. By then, we were already enrolling full-time students, many of whom came from the WPI undergraduate program, inspired by the fire safety theme of so many IQPs. Eventually, distance learning technology enabled enrollment of off-campus students worldwide. Today, WPI reports a total of 293 students enrolled in the FPE program, including nine at the doctoral level.

Fundraising was a vital element of program startup. Gifts and grants from individuals, foundations and corporations made the difference - they contributed millions of dollars for scholarships and internships as well as course development and construction of a first-generation fire laboratory.

The centerpiece course, which we called "Fire Dynamics," was underwritten by a $100,000 leadership gift from CIGNA Corporation. This project included writing of the landmark textbook Introduction to Fire Dynamics by CIGNA Visiting Professor Dougal Drysdale.

Fitzie and I retired in 2004. We, along with all the other faculty and staff, continue to draw satisfaction from knowing there are some 600 WPI graduates out there working at the intersection of technology and society and making today's world a safer place - very much in harmony with the IQP that played such a key role at the inception of the program.

David A. Lucht is with Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

For more details on the history of the WPI program, go to

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