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WPI Expands Global Reach with Three New Project Centers in Ecuador, Panama, and Worcester, England

Through WPIs 46 Global Project Centers, Students Work with Faculty and Host Communities to Conduct Research and Develop Solutions to Real Problems Around the World

September 21, 2015
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Students work at the Panama Canal in Panama City, site of one of newest of WPI's 46 global project centers (Photo Courtesy of ACP)

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a leader in international project-based education, has launched three new project centers in Ecuador, Panama, and Worcester, England. Through these new project centers, WPI students and faculty will focus on solving problems relating to the environment, public safety, cultural preservation, infrastructure, tourism, urban planning, education, and other issues facing the host community.

Nearly 70 percent of all WPI students complete an off-campus project before graduation; more than half of those opt for international experiences. To date, more than 10,000 students have participated in off-campus projects, including approximately 850 this academic year. Additionally, 80 or more faculty members serve as advisors for the programs every year.

WPI students have the opportunity to work at one of the university's 46 project centers located in 28 countries across the globe, including the United States, where they research and develop solutions to real-world problems the lie at the interface of science, technology, social issues, and human need.

"We're thrilled to add these dynamic project centers to the already rich offerings of our global studies program," said WPI President Laurie Leshin. "Access to study-away programs has proven to be a key differentiator of WPI's STEM- [science, technology, engineering and math] based education, combining our unique curricula with our history of success in helping students travel outside our campus to solve authentic problems in community settings."

Through the Project Centers, students complete their Interactive Qualifying Projects (IQPs) and Major Qualifying Project (MQPs), which are required for graduation. Undertaken in the junior and senior years, these projects provide WPI students with opportunities to apply classroom and lab-acquired knowledge to solve real-world problems either on or off campus. The junior-year project, the IQP, facilitates student teams that tackle societal issues related to science and technology. The senior-year project, the MQP, challenges students to solve problems typical of those encountered in their professional discipline.

WPI combines these unique educational programs with a research emphasis on local and regional sustainable development that focuses on the strategies and needs of governmental and non-governmental agencies engaged in the challenge of creating healthy, prosperous, and environmentally responsible localities and regions around the globe.

"Having seen the meaningful impact on students who work on off-campus projects, as well as on the faculty who participate, we're genuinely excited to be launching these additional sites and opportunities," said Richard F. Vaz, dean of the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division, which administers the Global Projects Program. "Combining service learning, undergraduate research and experiential learning with WPI's distinctive project-based learning methods, WPI's Global Projects Program is a model of how technological universities can place high-engagement, high-impact international experiences at the center of the curriculum rather than at its periphery."

For more than three decades, WPI has sent a higher percentage of its engineering and science students off campus and abroad for academic research than any other technical university in the United States.

Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is a modern city of approximately half a million residents. Because of its desirable location (nestled in a valley of the Andes), its excellent infrastructure, and its dynamic academic and cultural offerings, Cuenca has become a mecca for both tourism and immigration. Its urban center and its proximity to several rural and indigenous communities provide a wide range of possible projects that may impact the future of the city and the well-being of many underserved communities.

Starting in 2016, WPI students will work with local nonprofit companies, public municipal agencies, and private service organizations that manage the city’s transportation, water, health, environmental, and cultural infrastructure. Projects undertaken at the center will allow students to apply their knowledge, using social science research methods, to focus on solving problems relating to the environment, infrastructure, tourism, urban planning, education, and the reduction of poverty.

Panama City, Panama

While WPI students have conducted MQPs in Panama for several years—the Panama Canal Authority has provided internships and other opportunities for students, for example—Panama City is now formally established as a WPI Project Center location available for students enrolling in their IQPs, as well.

In Panama, WPI students can access learning opportunities in civil engineering projects such as construction analysis and design, sustainability, and water flow and management. Projects may also include researching the environmental, social, and safety aspects of aviation in Panama, or the role of academics and business in the social context. Other work may focus on supporting education opportunities and professional development for students and workers of indigenous or underserved populations, and on programs to support vulnerable youths through education, sports, environmental stewardship, and service learning.

Worcester, England

Located just two hours northwest of London, in the heart of the English countryside, Worcester is a culturally rich and historic city of approximately 100,000 people. Introduced by Lord Richard Faulkner, an area politician long dedicated to sustainability and environmental issues, WPI has partnered with Worcester University and other organizations in the UK on a number of projects focused on sustainability as it relates to social justice and economic stability.

Through the new project center, WPI students will have opportunities to work with organizations and businesses in Worcester, England, to share knowledge and develop projects in such areas as sustainable urbanism, resource reclamation and reuse, job training of residents, and energy auditing. Sixteen students are already enrolled in a project scheduled for spring in which they will work with Worcester University officials and city officials to conduct energy analyses of off-campus student housing in many of the city's older buildings, making recommendations for improvements in efficiency. These projects build on successful projects undertaken in Worcester as part of WPI's London Project Center over the past two years.

In addition to Ecuador, Panama, and the UK, WPI is exploring potential project centers at other sites around the world, as well as increasing enrollment at existing sites as part of the university’s strategic plan. WPI is also a commitment partner of the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad Initiative, which is a nationwide push to double the number of American students who study in foreign countries. In August, the Princeton Review ranked WPI among the top ten universities in the nation for the "most popular study abroad program"; WPI was the only technological university in the top 20 in that category.

A list of WPI project centers can be found here.