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Keys to the City

The Worcester Community Project Center is harnessing the energy and ideas of WPI students and faculty to help build a brighter and more sustainable future for WPI's home city.

By Joan Killough-Miller
Photography by Patrick O'Connor

"Welcome to the only WPI project center that allows you to give back something to the community where you live."

With these words, Rob Krueger, director of WPI's Worcester Community Project Center (WCPC), welcomes students to the university's least exotic project destination--their own backyard. Like their peers who've flown to Bangkok, Venice, or Washington, D.C., these young men and women are about to embark on a seven-week adventure. They may not travel in gondolas or explore English castles, but that doesn't mean they won't immerse themselves in the history and culture of their project location. The immersion process begins with a walking tour, led by Krueger. In the blocks that surround WPI, students discover landmarks that reveal Worcester's unique story. Krueger, an Oklahoma transplant and a geographer by training, wants his students to see New England's third-largest metropolis as a case study in the growth of America's major cities. "I try to show them how technological innovation and economic development go hand in hand," he says, "how they create different social relationships that have implications for how cities develop and change."

It's an abstract concept, but just across Salisbury Street is a concrete example: Institute Park. Created when WPI was still young, the small park is a reminder that the city and the university share a common history. The park was donated to the city by Stephen Salisbury III to be preserved as a place of retreat and recreation for WPI's weary students and Worcester's citizens.

Today, it is a symbol of how WPI and municipal leaders are working together to help shape a brighter future for Worcester. The university is partnering with the city to restore the now rundown park to its former glory. WPI's contributions include a $50,000 gift to help fund a master plan for the park's rebirth and the hard work and good ideas of a number of student project teams, whose historical research and recommendations will help get the restoration off to a running start.

Just the Facts

Worcester Community Project Center

Mission: To bring WPI's scientifically minded students and faculty together with Worcester organizations to address policy issues that are important to the city's future.

Focus: Needs and concerns of the Worcester community, such as public education, youth services, neighborhood development, downtown revitalization, environmental protection, affordable housing, transportation and parking, and marketing the city.

Gifts: Over $1.8 million ($1 million from the Stoddard Charitable Trust, $500,000 from the Fletcher Foundation, $250,000 from the Ruth H. and Warren A. Ellsworth Foundation, $60,000 from the Mildred H. McEvoy Foundation, and $40,000 from the Hoche-Scofield Foundation).

Annual Value to the City: $319,200 (includes the estimated value of the nearly 12,000 hours of student work and nearly 900 hours of faculty work during each of the two academic terms the project center operates each year).

Taking Community Service to a New Level

The benefits of the economic, intellectual, and human capital that flow from universities to their home communities are widely known, but difficult to quantify. A report published by the Colleges of Worcester Consortium in 2000 estimated the economic impact of Worcester colleges on the city at $1.3 billion. In addition, WPI students, like their peers at colleges across the country, organize fund-raisers, food drives, and cleanup projects, participate in programs that support the public schools, and perform community service for the city's needy populations.

But what sets WPI apart from virtually every other university is the power of its project-based education to accomplish far-reaching, long-lasting structural change that impacts a city as a whole. WPI stands alone in requiring its students to use their technical education to address societal issues through a unique project experience called the Interactive Project, which uses intensive problem solving so students can see how science, technology, and social needs and concerns intersect in ways that impact individuals and society as a whole.

Through WPI's Global Perspective Program, student teams complete Interactive Projects that have helped address the local needs and concerns of cities and towns around the world. With the WCPC, that time-tested model has come home.

The result is a new dimension in town-gown relations in Worcester, Krueger says. While other colleges work to improve their surrounding neighborhoods, the projects completed at WCPC take "a comprehensive, city-wide approach to planning," he notes. "We're focusing on neighborhoods, but not just our own neighborhood. We try to develop models for community development that can then be generalized citywide or even transported to other cities or other countries."

Bringing Best Practices Back Home

WPI established a formal project center in Worcester in 2000 not only to strengthen its commitment to the local community, but also to provide a more robust project experience for students who choose not to leave campus to pursue one of their required projects. For several years, those who monitor academic quality at WPI saw that student projects completed at residential project centers tended to be stronger and more valuable to students than projects completed on campus.

The freedom to focus on their projects and nothing else for seven intensive weeks, and the presence of sponsors clearly interested in and anxious to benefit from their work, seem to motivate students to excel, notes Lance Schachterle, associate provost for academic affairs. "In the early 1990s," he says,"we came to the conclusion that we could do a better job with projects in Worcester if we learned from the best practices we had developed at the residential project centers and created the same kind of focused environment here."

Those best practices included making the Interactive Project the sole focus of a single academic term, and spelling out more rigorous academic standards for project topics and reports. To help build the academic foundation for the new center, and to build bridges to the city agencies and organizations whose support would be crucial to its success, WPI turned to a native son, former Worcester mayor and city council member John B. Anderson (above, outside City Hall). "His name worked wonders at meetings with municipal officials," Schachterle recalls. As an academician (professor emeritus of history at the College of the Holy Cross) and a politician, Anderson embraced the WCPC concept from the start. "It's something that the other schools in Worcester haven't approached with the same determination," he says. "Given the nature of WPI, a lot of its students have skills that are particularly suited to the public works field.

"Word has gotten around," he adds, "that if you have an issue that needs to be addressed, there's this program at WPI that can lend you a team of three or four people, and they're good, and they're skilled, and they'll give a full-time commitment to you for seven weeks."

Building Worcester's Future, One Project at a Time

When returning Mayor Timothy P. Murray (right, on Lancaster Street) delivered his inaugural address in WPI's Alden Memorial in January 2004, he had much praise for the good works done by the university's faculty, staff, and students. He used the occasion to announce the formation of a task force to study best practices across the country where colleges are working in partnerships with cities. "We can identify one right now: what WPI is doing on Gateway Park," he says. "Certainly, through this initiative, WPI reasserted itself to the role it has historically played as an innovator and incubator of jobs to sustain the community. Gateway Park will be the foundation to sustain Worcester for the next 100 years."

The involvement of WPI and its students in Gateway Park (see sidebar) has garnered positive news coverage for WPI. Several WCPC projects have laid the groundwork for another of the city's prime visions: creating an arts district to help revitalize the downtown.

Other recent projects have assessed municipal needs, such as transportation, parking, urban planning and marketing, and provided local schools with data that will help them meet the state's requirement that public schools offer K-12 pre-engineering curricula. Some WCPC projects have combined WPI's expertise and the needs of city residents in unexpected ways:

The same data-gathering methodology that student teams at other project centers have used to map the canals of Venice and help mitigate the disruption caused by Boston's Big Dig holds great promise for Worcester, where WCPC teams have used it to develop a system for minimizing injuries on Worcester's public playgrounds, to help assess the factors that will affect the revitalization of the Chandler Street neighborhood, and to map recreational benefits of the city's "green" and "blue" conservation areas. "Those are the kinds of things the city finds difficult to do, because it's short staffed," says Anderson, who adds that in the struggle of municipalities to keep up with immediate issues, "what gets short shrift is the planning for the future."

"In academia," Krueger explains, "we have the luxury of engaging in bigger ideas. As collaborators, in partnership with the city, we can identify the key needs and then go out and find best practices. I see the role of the WCPC--or any of the project centers in WPI's global network--as being a way to lower the cost of entry into doing something good or right."

Krueger's work is informed by principles of "sustainable development," which promote urban growth that is economically, socially, and environmentally viable in order to meet present needs without compromising the needs of the future. To share these ideas with local planners and officials, he gathered experts for "Envisioning Worcester's Future," a workshop in 2002. And, with funding from the state and the city, he is currently working on a Community Development Plan to further the city's goal of being the most livable city in the Northeast.

He says he believes Worcester is poised to move forward and learn from the wrong turns taken by other cities over the past 50 years. "We're doing some things that will help the community with basic needs," he says, "but we also have the potential to push Worcester forward into being something better."

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 11:51 EDT
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