WPI Student Project Work in Namibia Garners Prestigious President’s IQP Award

The winning student team studied solar energy business opportunities in nonelectrified areas of the African nation

Students Celebrated for Developing Solutions to Globally Significant Problems

From left, Chelsea Sheehan, John-Andrew Sandbrook, President Berkey, and Heidi Robertson

A team of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) undergraduate students that researched and evaluated business opportunities with solar energy in un-electrified areas in Namibia, Africa, won the prestigious WPI President’s IQP Award on Friday, Jan. 28.

As part of their required-for-graduation IQP (or Interactive Qualifying Project), WPI seniors Chelsea C. Sheehan of Millbury, Mass.; Heidi P. Robertson of St. Paul, Minn.; and John-Andrew Sandbrook of Davie, Fla., traveled to Africa last spring to assess the performance of the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia’s (DRFN) program, “Business Opportunities with Solar Energy in Un-Electrified Areas,” which was launched in 2009.  

The lack of electricity is hindering Namibia’s economic and societal growth, and since large areas of the country are off the grid, alternative energy sources are being closely scrutinized.  Through a pilot program, the DRFN installed 10 “energy shops” within these rural un-electrified areas that have provided basic energy services such as cell phone charging and haircutting - and sell energy products such as paraffin gas and candles - to areas of the country that did not have access to electricity. 

While in Namibia, the WPI students evaluated the pilot program’s economic success, technical capacity, social implications, and customer satisfaction; and concluded that the energy shops are economically sound and would be applicable on a larger scale. In addition, the students analyzed data, interviewed entrepreneurs, conducted community member surveys, and collected firsthand observations—all of which helped the team determine each energy shop’s performance in those particular areas of Namibia. 

The IQP is one of two projects required of WPI undergraduates; it allows students to pursue hands-on, real-world research opportunities all over the world. Working in teams under the guidance of faculty advisors, students conduct their research either locally or at one of 26 WPI-sponsored project centers to address—and solve—real problems that lie at the interface of science, technology, social issues, and human needs. (WPI has sent more undergraduate engineering and science students abroad for academic research than any other university in the United States.) Through participation at project centers, WPI students address local issues, develop an understanding of other cultures, and see how their lives and work will play out on a global stage.

Last academic year, more than 300 student teams completed IQPs. Of those, 44 teams entered their projects for WPI’s annual coveted President's IQP Award; the best five projects were selected to vie for the award. To be considered, projects must be superior in conception, execution, and presentation. The finalists gave their presentations before WPI President and CEO Dennis Berkey and a panel of esteemed judges: Christa R. Bleyleben, senior partner at Massachusetts-based MassGlobal Partners LLC; Al Barry ’77, partner at Al Barry Consulting LLC and director at the Worcester-based Stanlok Group; Jim Baum '86, CEO of Netezza (now part of IBM); and Eric Overstrom, provost ad interim at WPI.

“The IQP is the most distinctive element of the WPI Plan, and a key element of its popularity and success,” said President Berkey. “It responds directly to concerns for students to become more engaged in meaningful service, finding ways to connect and apply their skills and formal learning to real needs in the world, whether in our home community or far afield. I was deeply impressed on Friday, as I am every year, both by what the students had achieved in the projects and by the quality of their presentations. The range of projects was very broad, the complexity high, and the work outstanding. There is so much here to be proud of and to celebrate.”

In addition to the Namibia-based project, the other finalists were:

February 1, 2011

Contact: Lorraine U. Martinelle, Public Relations Specialist, +1-508-831-6425, lurbans@wpi.edu