WPI Students Help London Museums Improve Expectations

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WORCESTER, Mass.--What do you expect from a museum? Enlightenment? Information? Interaction? Four Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) teams spent seven weeks last spring at the university's London Project Center, where they helped British museum staffers improve the way they meet visitors' expectations. (Four other teams focused on other topics in London.) The IQP is one of three projects all undergraduates undertake as part of the innovative WPI Plan.

In recent years, more and more museums have replaced traditional lectures about their exhibitions with interactive presentations. At the London Museum of Science, kiosks in the "Tell Us What You Think" (Tell) system encourage visitors to express their views about controversial issues in science or technology. After viewing a series of introductory film clips and text, they are invited to peruse comments left by previous patrons and add their own observations and opinions.

For their IQP (from left), Adam Brancato of Merchantville, N.J., Michael Modisett of Portsmouth, R.I., and Alex Tang of Henniker, N.H., helped the National Art Library begin the process of making manuscripts available online. (High Resolution Photo)

WPI seniors David Kirubi, an industrial engineering major from Glastonbury, Conn., Shaun McQuaid, a computer science major from Norton, Mass., David Spitz, a biomedical engineering major from Hallandale, Fla., and David Yamartino, a mechanical engineering major from Keene, N.H., were the first to analyze the comments and associated data recorded on the Tell system and the first to update the topics. After interviewing museum visitors to determine the most appealing topics, the team generated new questions about euthanasia, stem cell research and Internet privacy, which were approved by museum officials. The updated Tell kiosks will encourage the continuation of direct interaction between the museum and its visitors.

Adam Brancato a chemical engineering major from Merchantville, N.J., Michael Modisett, a computer science major from Portsmouth, R.I., and Alex Tang, a computer science major from Henniker, N.H., helped the National Art Library (NAL) begin the process of making manuscripts available online. Located within the Victoria & Albert Museum, the NAL is home to priceless manuscripts, many of which are deteriorating and becoming more difficult to decipher. Researchers can currently view them only in the library, where access is controlled and space limited. Last year, another WPI project team designed a tagging system that allowed transcribers to annotate text to identify information so that it could be easily recognized by a computer. Brancato, Modisett and Tang expanded that project with their design of a comprehensive, flexible online resource that will ultimately provide scholars with faster, more efficient and more powerful access to these treasures and include links to online resources outside the NAL and can be adapted for use by other art history archives around the world.

For their IQP (from left), David Tolmie of Shelburne, Vt., Elizabeth Hart of Delmar, N.Y., and Joseph Knuble of Brewer, Maine, designed an interactive Web site about photovoltaic solar arrays and turbine energy systems for London's National Museum of Science and Industry. (High Resolution Photo)

Supply and demand takes on new urgency in the intensifying world energy debate. London's National Museum of Science and Industry is considering the installation of rooftop wind and solar equipment to enhance young visitors' education about the future of energy for the U.K. To compliment the exhibit, WPI seniors Elizabeth Hart, a chemical engineering major from Delmar, N.Y., Joseph Knuble, an electrical engineering major from Brewer, Maine, and David Tolmie, an EE major from Shelburne, Vt., designed an interactive Web site about photovoltaic solar arrays and wind turbine energy systems that presents the information in a colorful, clear and concise manner. The site engaged visitors' interest in alternative energy and enabled museum staffers to determine the most effective way to showcase the materials.

As they prepared for an expanded and improved Education Centre, staff members at the Royal Armouries of the Tower London wanted to know more about how teachers and students learned about and responded to their programs. Seniors Justyn Garon, a chemical engineering major from Auburn, N.H., Edward Giarnese, an electrical engineering major from Winsted, Conn., and Robert Skiba, a mechanical engineering major from Hartford, Conn., developed questionnaires to provide insights into the workshops. They recommended increasing hands-on activities, decreasing lectures, and including a guided tour of the tower, and suggested that the museum develop a database of schools to stimulate interest in both the centre and the tower and offer online registration for programs to ease that procedure.

For their IQP (from left), Robert Skiba of Hartford, Conn., Justyn Garon of Auburn, N.H., and Edward Giannese of Winsted, Conn., developed questionnaires to help the Tower of London gain insights about its workshops. (High Resolution Photo)

"Interactive Qualifying Projects are perfect for museums," said James S. Demetry, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, who served as advisor to these projects with Ruth L. Smith, associate professor of religion. "Their focus on the interdependence of technology and society and emphasis on teamwork is enhanced by the students' exuberance and creativity. It all comes together as team members devote an intense seven weeks to helping museum staffers organize or improve collections in ways that appeal to and enlighten visitors."

Founded in 1865, WPI was a pioneer in technological higher education. Early on, it developed an influential curriculum that balanced theory and practice. Since 1970, that philosophy has been embodied in an innovative outcomes-oriented undergraduate program. With a network of project centers that spans the globe, WPI is also the leader in globalizing technological education. WPI awarded its first advanced degree in 1898. Today, most of WPI's academic departments offer master's and doctoral programs and support leading-edge research in a broad range of areas. WPI's approach to education has prepared generations of problem solvers whose new ideas and inventions have literally changed the world. They include Robert Goddard '08, father of modern rocketry, Harold Black, inventor of the principle of negative-feedback; Carl Clark, inventor of the first practical airbag safety systems; Richard T. Whitcomb, formulator the Area Rule and developer the supercritical wing, and Dean Kamen, inventor of the first wearable drug-infusion pump and the stair-climbing wheelchair.