Students Tackle International Problems - and Hope to Win Top Honors Dec. 6

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WORCESTER, Mass. - What effect will the relocation of a Thai village have upon its inhabitants?

How can a developing nation make the best use of fish farming? Can fragile historic documents be made available to modern scholars? What must fire departments do to communicate life-and-death information during an emergency? How happy are the people working for, and being treated in, a hospital for the severely disabled?

These questions were posed to five teams of students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute within the past year. The students answered those challenges in the course of completing an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), a seven-to-10 week, hands-on assignment that shows the effects of the interactions of science, technology and society. The IQP is a graduation requirement at this technological university, where about 230 such projects were completed this year.

The top five IQPs are chosen annually each fall, and picking a final winner is never easy. For the year 2000, the following five projects won a berth in the WPI competition, to be held Wednesday, Dec. 6, from 1:45 to 4:30 p.m. in Alden Memorial Hall's Spaulding Recital Room on WPI's Worcester, Mass., campus:

"An Assessment of the Impacts of Relocation in a Thai Village," was completed by Justin D. Greenough of Pascoag, R.I., a senior computer science major; Stephanie D. Janeczko of Wood-Ridge, N.J., a 2000 graduate biology major; and Thomas J. Pfeiffer of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., a senior biotechnology major.

In a town near Bangkok, a Thai power plant had relocated villagers to develop the land they had lived on. This project evaluated the impact of relocation to determine what, if any, plan would be acceptable in the future. The WPI students surveyed more than 400 villagers and organized nine focus groups to gather information. Questions involved finances, political involvement, health and social well-being. The students found such plans need to be more concerned with villagers' needs.

"Aquaculture Techniques Applicable to Developing Nations" was completed by Abel Alvarez-Calderon of Lima, Peru, a junior management engineering major; and Karen Kosinski of Middletown, R.I., a junior biotechnology major.

The WPI team aimed to find out what fish farmers in Costa Rica needed to know to make their jobs more efficient and profitable. They studied the operation of one of the country's largest fish hatcheries, learning about fish feeding, development and breeding. They also researched the operation of a commercially viable system and compiled information from surveys and field studies to produce a working manual for fish farmers. After distributing the manual to several producers, they verified that the farmers found the manual easy to understand and useful.

"Transcription and Cataloguing of the Robinson Reports" was completed by Christopher Holt of Milford, Mass., a computer science major; Micah Kiffer of Kempton, Pa., a senior mechanical engineering major; and Keith Peterson of Wrentham, Mass., a senior electrical engineering major.

"Sir John Charles Robinson was the primary art collector for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 1853-1868," the students wrote in their report. "His letters and associated documents, known as the Robinson Reports, are housed within (the museum) and provide a great deal of information on the museum's holdings."

The papers are invaluable as historical documents, and of great interest to scholars. But as with many old documents, the Robinson Reports are too fragile for general use. They are hard to search due to a lack of cataloguing. The students aimed to make the Robinson Reports available in an electronic format, allowing online availability accessible to anyone. Working with WPI humanities-and-arts professor Lee Fontanella, a Robinson scholar who is transcribing the reports, the team worked on a system to make the documents available to a broad audience in a standard format. Once they developed the system, they wrote a user manual with sample transcriptions. The students hope their work will benefit other scholarly research in addition to that involving the Robinson Reports.

"Geographic Information System (GIS) Development in Costa Rica," was completed by Shauna Malone of Guilford, Conn., a junior biotechnology major; W. Lucas Churchill of New Gloucester, Maine, a junior mechanical engineering major; Jimmy Cook of Dallas, Texas, a senior mechanical engineering major; and Felix Rieper of Hamburg, Germany, a junior computer science major.

The project was sponsored by the Costa Rican National Fire Department, which had been struggling with communications difficulties during emergencies. The department needed an information management system to improve response time and information sharing. The students suggested the use of a GIS, a computer-based system that combines maps and demographic data to create a powerful organizational and analytical tool.

"A correctly implemented GIS gives firefighters access to pertinent information, such as optimal route recommendations, hydrant locations and information on hazardous materials when en route to and at the scene of an emergency," the students wrote in their report. By studying a similar system recently installed in Winston-Salem, N.C., and conducting other extensive research, the students made a recommendation for a similar system in Costa Rica.

"A Study of Employee Satisfaction at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability" was completed by Steven Meyer of Mount Pleasant, S.C., a senior biomedical engineering major; Daniel Erickson of Franklin, Mass., a senior chemistry major; Ruben Brito of Salem, N.H., a senior electrical engineering major; and Joanna Cosimini of Rehoboth, Mass., a senior biomedical engineering major.

"The tendency of a stressful working environment to create dissatisfied employees and detract from productivity magnifies the importance of employee satisfaction in the health-care industry," noted the students, who conducted their project at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London, a facility for the profoundly disabled. Their goals included providing recommendations to improve employees' working environment, described as stressful and even depressing. They collected data through an employee survey, personal interviews and focus groups, identifying areas of concern, such as lack of communication and stress management programs. They then provided recommendations based on research to improve the working environment, receiving high praise from the hospital staff as a result.

Founded in 1865, WPI enrolls 2,700 undergraduate and 1,100 graduate students in science, engineering, management, social science and humanities.