Technology Supports the Arts: WPI Student Helps Create Museum Web Site

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - Although Worcester Polytechnic Institute junior Eric Tapley is still in the midst of his college studies, he can already teach others a few things. The Jaffrey, N.H. native has spent the last term designing a Web site for the renowned Worcester Art Museum. The results of that work debuted March 19 at http://www.worcesterart.org/.

Tapley's involvement began a year ago when museum administrators called WPI for help in redesigning its Web site. WPI's Amy L. Marr suggested Tapley.

"I put Eric on the project and they liked what he did so much, they offered to hire him for the summer," said Marr, the university's Web coordinator. Tapley began to divide his time between WPI and the museum, with the cooperative venture cropping up this year.

"Eric currently works full-time at the museum on his co-op, and puts in 15 hours a week for my office," Marr said. "He's a busy guy! This summer, he'll work full-time for me and put in a few hours a week for the museum. His duties consist of Web design, instruction and computer support."

Established in 1976, the WPI Cooperative Education Program provides a way for students to include in their education extended periods of full-time, outside employment at companies and other institutions. Co-op is a non-credit, paid work experience in which classroom learning is complemented and reinforced. Students in cooperative work arrangements have the opportunity to practice some of their developing technical skills.

Here's a conversation with Tapley on how he became involved in the Worcester Art Museum's Web design project:

  • What have you been up to at the Worcester Art Museum?

    Primarily I've been working on redesigning the museum Web site. This has involved a lot of collaboration between myself and various staff members at the museum, most notably the designer, Sean Flynn, marketing director Joan Wackell and communications manager Barbara Donato. I've also had generous assistance from their information services director, John Clevenger, and the individual who has been updating and maintaining the Web site all along, Phil Johnson. So I can't really take all the credit for this.

    We started by charting a direction for the Web site and defining goals. We wanted it to be graphically appealing, but not ominous. At the same time we wanted the site to be clean, and for the content to be easily readable. (Basically no black backgrounds or crazy moving images.) After setting a few standards on design, we worked on its organization. We needed a site that would reflect the way people view the museum, not it's internal structure. We ended up categorizing our information into seven sections: Collection, Education, Events, Exhibitions, Information, Membership and Services. This is a short enough list that people don't get overwhelmed, but there are enough different categories to contain nearly all the information we have to present.

    Finally we set up a flexible design based around our organization. Part of the design process involved using museum art throughout the site. A great example of this is seen in our main page, where an image from our collection is randomly selected from a pool of five images - which presents a sample of what the museum has to offer.

    Now that the new Web site has gone live, I'm going to focus on adding features and then working on some other projects at the museum. All along I've been the support technician for the Computer Studio there, which includes setup and maintenance of a server and 12 Macintosh computers, as well as writing technical documentation and instructions for computer, printer and scanner use.

    One of the most exciting projects I'm going to start is teaching people in the museum about Web technologies and how they can best be used by various departments. I hope to help initiate online registration for the Education, Membership and Events departments, as well as the creation of a searchable database with images that can be accessed over the Web. In my spare time there I'm going to put together an Intranet, too, for internal communication and Web training.

  • How did you get involved in the first place?

    I originally started working at the museum last spring as the support technician for the Computer Studio. They needed someone with knowledge of supporting Macintoshes, which I know how to do, and I needed a job. It was a good fit. After a while I had a good reputation at the museum, and my duties started to become extended. I helped them by making purchasing suggestions for new hardware for the lab, and got to know the staff in the Education Department. Later that year I started looking into a co-op position at the museum. I was initially going to work for them doing computer technical support and training, but this evolved into primarily doing Web work.

  • What connection does this work have to your future career plans?

    As far as my career plans go, I'm keeping my options open. I like doing Web work, so for now it's a good fit. Later in life I may work as a Web master or designer - or change my mind. I'm fairly flexible, as long as I like what I'm doing and feel that it's benefiting society as a whole. I don't want to sell out. That's one of the reasons I like working at the museum; it's a non-profit cultural institution. I find my work more fulfilling that way.

  • What's your major? And how does the co-op work figure into your studies?

    Actually, I'm a double major. I'm majoring in "System Dynamics" and "Society, Technology and Policy Studies." I have two main focuses in my majors: the environment, and how people relate to technology, specifically computers. It's great to work in the museum because I see how non-technical people deal with computers and the Web on a daily basis. Teaching also helps because I get to figure out firsthand what people understand and what is confusing for them. I suppose this job doesn't have much to do with the environment (unless you consider looking at and learning about the Hudson River painters an environmental education), but it has really opened my eyes to the struggles of people and technology.

  • Tell me about your other activities and projects.

    I'm the president of the WPI Student Pugwash chapter, and I'll be attending the International Student Pugwash Conference from June 28-July 4 in San Diego, Calif. Student Pugwash is an offshoot of the Pugwash Conferences for Science and World Affairs, started back in the 1950s by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein.

    Members are concerned about the ethics of science and technology. Instead of presenting one side of an argument, we try to be non-biased and hold discussion forums where people can express their ideas and allow for informed decisions. It's pretty cool, because at conferences we get to speak with Nobel prize winners, and then back on campus we engage in lively debates about things like the Human Genome Project. I'd like to think that through Student Pugwash I'm making some kind of difference.

  • What's the significance of the name "Pugwash"?

    Pugwash is the name of the town where the first conferences on Science and World Affairs were held. A man in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, offered to sponsor the conferences, and they were held there for two years in a row. Since they've been held all over the world. In 1995 the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, along with Student Pugwash, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • What are your duties for the WPI Web site?

    I work as a Web writer at the Web coordinator's office. I've been there for over a year now, and I really enjoy my job. It's exciting because there are always new projects to work on, so things never get stale. On the side I do free-lance web design, and I have a few clients.

  • What's the best thing you will take away from your co-op opportunity?

    I'm really glad that I'm on this co-op, and I'm enjoying myself immensely. There are quite a few things I've already realized that I'll be taking from it, and I'm sure that more will become apparent before I'm done. First, I've really learned that students have much more free time than we ever realize. I'll definitely capitalize on my next two years as a student now that I know what's coming in the "real world." Associated with this is what I've learned about time management. Any big project you start will take longer than you expect or want to complete, but if you see it though, will be worth it in the end.