Just after I began editing Transformations last fall, I heard a radio news story that summed up, for me, the need for a school like WPI.
The reporter said that Walter Cronkite, retired newsman and Nantucket Islander, had filmed a commercial against a proposed wind farm on Nantucket Sound. There on the Mass Pike, east of Sturbridge, I became steering-wheel-slapping mad.
I wasn't surprised that a citizen of that removed ZIP code would oppose a project that might tarnish his pristine landscape; "nimby" (not in my back yard) mentality is everywhere. What angered me was the missed opportunity. What if Cronkite or other famous islanders had put their weight behind the project, had embraced the windmills in the manner of Arianna Huffington heave-hoing her Lincoln Navigator in favor of a hybrid Toyota Prius? Hybrid cars and windmills are far from perfect technologies, but with a celebrity endorsement they suddenly are worthy of our attention.
Cronkite's stand is why WPI's mission of nurturing technological humanists is so important. New technologies can't be created in a vacuum. If the public isn't ready to embrace the risks that come with trying something new, the ability to advance society is lost. Closed minds are the flypaper in the kitchen of possibility.
WPI requires the world's future engineers and scientists to go beyond merely thinking and creating. They must come out of the lab, shake hands and sell their ideas. WPI calls on students to open their eyes to the world in which their good work must find an accepting audience--and sometimes that takes convincing. The ability to communicate as well as innovate is why Robert Lindberg was able to push the boundaries of the space industry and why WPI students are a valuable asset to jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney. This skill set sets WPI graduates apart.
There are questions about the windmill project, of course. How will wildlife adapt? Will altering the landscape be worth the clean energy produced? Some think 24 square miles of giant spinning machines in the middle of the sound will look ghastly; to others it seems a thing of beauty.
This issue will be argued in the coming months, but to me, the vision of all those windmills looks like just one thing: progress. It's what happens when people and ideas evolve in tandem. It's what happens every day at WPI.
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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 10:03 EDT