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
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
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
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.