Fintech, STEM, and AI: How Worcester Polytechnic Institute Is Shaping Future Business Leaders

Innovative project hubs around the world immerse Worcester Polytechnic Institute business students in real-world learning. Here's how WPI is shaping the future of business education.
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Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Published on February 26, 2024
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  • The Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Business School has infused STEM and real-world learning into its curriculum.
  • WPI Business School Dean Debora Jackson underscored the importance of STEM and real-world learning for business students in an interview with BestColleges.
  • WPI has project-based learning centers across the globe, including a financial technology (fintech) project center on Wall Street.
  • Fintech is set for rapid growth over the next decade, and WPI recently launched both undergraduate and graduate degrees in that field.

When Debora Jackson, dean of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Business School, wanted to shift from a software engineer to a leadership role early in her career, her colleagues all had the same recommendation for a school that would prepare her for managing a tech-heavy company.

"I remember speaking to colleagues and saying, 'Is there a school that is one to prepare me to lead technologists?'" Jackson recounted in an interview with BestColleges. "And all of my colleagues said WPI."

The Worcester Polytechnic Institute Business School in Massachusetts has long been a leader when it comes to combining STEM and business education — and as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and rapidly growing industries like financial technology become more important to students and business leaders alike, WPI remains a key player in shaping the future of business education.

Jackson, whose wide-ranging career eventually led her to take the helm of the WPI Business School, told BestColleges that the school's focus on real-world, project-based learning, coupled with its science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, resources, puts it in a unique position to prepare future leaders for an ever-changing business landscape.

"We're a business school of technology," Jackson said. "We're always going to integrate business and technology, and we've been doing it for a long time. This has been part of the DNA of our school since WPI was founded."

A STEM Focus From Bachelor Degrees to MBAs

Financial technology, or fintech, is projected to become a $1.5 trillion industry by 2030, and WPI is uniquely positioned to propel students into that tech-dependent industry.

WPI announced new graduate and undergraduate degrees in fintech in 2023. Fintech is a broad term that applies to technologies that assist with or automate finance for companies and consumers alike. That can mean everything from cryptocurrencies to online payment services.

Jackson described those new degrees as "truly interdisciplinary," bringing together experts from finance and economics to computer science and mathematics to craft a STEM-infused curriculum.

The industry is expected to balloon in revenue over the next several years, with the Boston Consulting Group projecting in 2023 that the industry's revenue will grow from around $245 billion to $1.5 trillion in less than a decade.

WPI is set to play a key role in fintech education: The Mass Fintech Hub, a collaborative that includes WPI alongside a host of companies and education groups, aims to make Massachusetts an anchor for the burgeoning industry.

But that's far from WPI's first foray into the fintech industry. The school has for decades maintained a fintech hub on Wall Street in New York, allowing students to work alongside financial industry leaders to incorporate fintech into real-world situations.

Jackson said that the Wall Street project center, alongside other collaborations with companies, has led WPI students to have a real impact on the industry.

"We help so many companies pivot from bricks-and-mortar to a digital presence," Jackson said.

STEM extends across WPI's curriculum beyond fintech. The business school plans to debut a STEM-designated master of business administration (MBA) degree in 2024, adding to its already lengthy list of STEM-designated programs.

STEM-designated MBA programs are increasingly popular as skills like data analytics and information technology become increasingly important to employers. The new WPI STEM MBA will bring a heavy focus on analytics.

WPI's real-world use of STEM in business education also extends beyond the private sector, Jackson said. Students and faculty have worked with the city of Worcester to use data from Department of Public Works vehicle cameras to analyze potholes and other infrastructure needs in the city.

Real-World Learning Across the Globe

Wall Street isn't the only place where WPI students go for real-world experience during their education.

WPI boasts dozens of project centers across the globe. Students can go to remote parts of Ghana to work on infrastructure and STEM curriculum, to Hong Kong to work on projects in the global financial center, and to a host of other cities and countries across the globe to tackle real-world issues as part of their education.

Jackson had just spoken with the WPI Business School's project center in Panama to discuss potential entrepreneurship opportunities when she connected with BestColleges.

Those touch points across the globe all focus on applying technology to real-world problems, Jackson said, adding students' work has taken many impactful forms.

"Whether it's refugee resettlement, or breaking up human-trafficking rings, or optimizing a supply chain, or helping a financial startup integrate technology so that they are able to do transactions across a variety of platforms and in a variety of situations, that's the application of that technology," Jackson said.

"That's what we get our students excited about. We're teaching the technology, but then we're helping them turn that into something that's going to make a difference in the world."

Inside the WPI Business School.
Image Credit: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Business School

Project-based learning has long been a key part of WPI's education model, Jackson said.

"We're teaching students theory, and then practice," Jackson said. "They're applying theory and making a difference. Project-based, team-led efforts are part of every course and all curriculums."

Being in tune with industry leaders across the world through project centers also helps to shape a responsive, fast-moving curriculum at WPI that reflects industry needs, Jackson said.

"You have to be able to always pivot to what's in demand in industry, in business, and teach the students how to use that technology so that they can go into these industries and make a difference," she said.

Meeting Student Needs for Flexibility, Accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a proliferation of online business education, with students increasingly prioritizing flexibility. A 2023 Graduate Management Admission Council report described flexibility as "the driving force behind programs with growing applications" that year.

Online and asynchronous learning, allowing students to continue their careers while pursuing higher education, is increasingly important in business education. Jackson said meeting individual student needs is critical for WPI.

"We're perfecting our delivery to make sure that students are prepared for whatever modality in which they need to work," Jackson said. "That flexibility is real. We're trying to help students see that there's value in all of those models."

Meeting student needs also means ensuring that historically underserved students have access to WPI's degree programs, Jackson said. The institute offers a Great Minds Scholars Program for Pell Grant-eligible seniors attending local high schools, covering up to the full cost of tuition based on demonstrated need.

Jackson said accessibility is a high priority for the business school and noted that its STEM-designated programs offer a pathway for students to remain in the United States and work after their graduation.

WPI's project-based learning centers, coupled with increasing internet access globally, also mean that the school is reaching students who otherwise might not have been able to come to the U.S. The school has a cohort of master's students in Lagos, Nigeria, in its business analytics program.

An accessible, STEM-focused, real-world approach is set to be a key part of business education going forward as top business schools increasingly look to incorporate tech and relevant skill sets into their curriculum. Jackson said that's what WPI has always done and added that the school will continue to be a "pacesetter" in the world of business education.

"If you care about business and technology and that integration, we sit at that intersection," Jackson said.