Parents Weekend Remarks


Office of the President

Good morning everyone — and welcome students, parents, families, and loved ones. I am so glad to be here with you this morning on our beautiful campus.

And let’s take a minute and thank the folks who have organized this great weekend, shall we?

Your son or daughter is clearly being well supported by you – because you’re here, I can tell you have close-knit and involved families, much like the community I like to think of as the WPI family. These great folks you just met, and all those who helped organize this weekend are examples of how our WPI family, our community, is here to support you and yours. In fact, instead of giving you lots of facts and figures or lots of lofty plans, I’d just like to take this chance to tell you a little bit about our WPI family – our community.

Many of us were last together almost three weeks ago. (How many of you were there?) and since then I have continued to be so impressed and delighted by our students here at WPI – and I have to tell you that it is SO fabulous to have them back on campus – I LOVE my job!

This was exemplified last Wednesday night. I participated in one of the oldest “family” traditions here at WPI when I walked across historic Earle Bridge with the members of the great class of 2018. Who was there with me? It was an awesome experience, right? The night was rainy and the weather dismal, but the students and I were thrilled to cross that bridge as a community, receiving our WPI beanies and becoming full members of this vibrant diverse WPI family. In fact, you can see how vibrant and diverse this community is by looking at the photos behind me.

Story #1: Impact in our Community

We’re all part of the family now, and so I get the chance to share with you some family stories (by the end of this you’ll all probably be thinking of me as the annoying aunt who never stops talking). And our family here at WPI is all about making an impact -- It is my firm belief that the work being done at STEM institutions like WPI is really about elevating families and communities all over the world – elevating prosperity and quality of life, and tackling the grand challenges we face. And OUR approach – WPI’s approach to technological education and research has enormous impact—locally and around the world.

In the WPI family, impact begins at home – through our ongoing commitment to and partnership with the city of Worcester – it is a cornerstone of the work we do. The 200 student clubs and organizations here on campus engaged in 35,000 hours of community service last year and raised more than $176,000 for charities in Worcester. We have several significant projects each year at the Worcester project center, working on things like engineering adaptive bicycles for people with disabilities, or with the Worcester Historical Museum to develop an interactive prototype design for a space suit exhibit—something near and dear to my heart!

And our impact has been far greater than that.

In a story that to me demonstrates the extraordinary value of the strong connection between the WPI family and our city, this December will mark the 15th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage fire. In an abandoned warehouse, two firefighters entered a fully engulfed building to search for homeless people that were thought to be inside. They were not inside, but during their search the firefighters became disoriented and got lost. They were running out of air, and two more fire fighters were sent in to try to find them. They too became disoriented. A third pair of firefighters entered the building and also lost their way. Because they were unable to find the exits, and because the team outside the building was not able to reach them, all six first responders perished in the fire.

A memorial was held here in Worcester with thousands of fire fighters coming to pay their respects. Hundreds of people lined the streets as the procession passed by. One of those people was John Orr, who was then the head of our Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. As he watched the procession, Professor Orr, like the rest of the Worcester community, experienced the intense grief of this terrible—and, frankly, preventable—tragedy. As a community member, he was devastated. As an engineer, he thought, “there must be a technological solution to this problem.” He returned to campus and with the help of then-professor, now dean of engineering David Cyganski and professor Jim Duckworth, they started to consider this problem. And, in a way characteristic of WPI, and in much the same way our students tackle problems around the globe, this team of WPI faculty wanted to make sure that whatever they ultimately developed solved the problem that the fire department had. So they began a deep collaboration and partnership with the Worcester Fire Department, to tackle the daunting challenges related to first responder safety. They developed a personal locator system working closely with the city’s firefighters. They held national forums on first responder technologies, and positioned WPI as a leader in this most critical of fields where technology and human need come together to improve and even save lives. And as our national impact has grown, our local partnership has endured – this month 18 local firefighters are being outfitted with wearable toxic gas sensors to track their exposure to dangerous chemicals. We will track their experience every second over the coming month in order to refine the technology further. And every day we work towards developing technologies that can keep our first responders safe.

Story #2: Impact around the world

This level of inspiration, this kind of impact, is not limited to the work of faculty researchers—the distinctive undergraduate experience we offer here at WPI offers real opportunities for impact, as well. As undergraduates, our students do what most of us do in our careers. They tackle actual problems working in cross-disciplinary teams. They step outside of the classroom and really experience STEM learning by doing throughout their time here. And it is life-changing. Through courses like our Great Problems seminar, from the first term in their first year, our students are given the opportunity to tackle some of the most complex, significant problems of our day. From clean water and climate change to livable cities and biodiversity, these first year students are thinking about, critically analyzing, and proposing solutions for challenges of global importance. I’m not sure many of us were doing that level of critical thinking at 18!

And there’s more… the global reach and impact of WPI is exemplified most notably through the project work our students do in their junior year, the IQP [Interactive Qualifying Project]. There are many, many examples of how impactful these projects can be. I could tell you amazing stories of students developing a better tire waste management system in Thailand, helping the people of New Zealand better prepare for tsunamis, or increasing urban agriculture right here in Worcester. But today I want to share one exemplar of the WPI family in the world.

The story takes place in Namibia, in western Africa, where there is a 51% unemployment rate. As a result, many people have moved closer to Windhoek, the capital, looking for work. But the city does not have adequate housing available and the rapid growth in the city’s population has caused small settlements to spring up just outside the city. These settlements house nearly 60% of Windhoek’s population, and the residents live in corrugated metal shacks, called kambashus.

The climate conditions in Namibia are extreme. Temperatures during the day regularly reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the nights are very cold. The metal roof of a kambashu can be as hot as 140 degrees. They lack any kind of heating or cooling system, making living there very uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous.

Last year, an interdisciplinary team of four IQP students traveled to Namibia and looked carefully at this problem. They hypothesized that insulated sheets made from a combination of recycled paper, sawdust, and water—and use of commercially available white paint—might help reduce the extreme temperatures within the kambashus. They engineered this system, tested it against a control shack, and were able to consistently reduce the temperature inside the kambashu by 10 deg F during the day.

Once the system was ready, they wrote an installation plan and trained members of the settlement to install the materials. Not only did these students significantly improve the quality of life for the residents of the settlement, this may very well create jobs in the village through the manufacture and use of the products. So the impact here is great. And the work these students do gives them a broader world view, and an empathy and understanding of the challenges faced by real people around the world.

Story #3 Impact on Alumni

And when our students are ready to take that next step beyond WPI, they are still part of the family and we are still here to support them. We are here to help our alumni take the big ideas they have been cultivating for the years they are here, and perhaps all through that first job (and just as a reminder, the members of our family DO get jobs!). They can take those ideas to our Tech Advisors Network, which offers advising (obviously)—but more important—networking and mentoring on how to bring their business ideas to fruition. This group of about 70 WPI alumni, faculty, staff, and friends are successful innovators, serial entrepreneurs, investors, and consultants. There are many examples of projects the Tech Advisors Network gets involved in, like the development of a smartphone application that measures vital signs, an app that prevents texting and driving, and an online educational tool for middle school science. But there is one more family story I would like to share in more detail with you.

Jay Shivaprakash ’08 and Matt Racki ’05 met while they were undergraduates, Jay in BME, Matt in CS. After graduation they were working in separate companies, but both around medical devices—one from hardware perspective and one from software. They realized on a trip to Maine that their interests were aligned and that they were not realizing their full potential where they were.

They decided to go into business together, looking to make a positive impact on the patient experience and data collection processes in long-term care and skilled nursing facilities. What they had figured out was that often these places were short staffed, and that the job of tracking how much care—and what kind of care—a patient was getting often fell to unskilled workers within the facility. Often the documentation amounted to notes hurriedly jotted down in a notebook. The implications of these problems were far reaching—it was not always clear that patients were being given the appropriate care, and the insurance payments were not accurate. In addition, it was time consuming and inefficient operationally, and caused errors in Medicare and Medicaid reporting.

After coming to the Tech Advisors Network process in 2012, these two alums started Gweepi Medical, a company that equips caretakers with smart devices allowing them to document the care they deliver for each patient in real time. Their SmartAid devices have improved staff members’ documentation capture and accuracy, and ensures that these patients have the best care possible. It also increased per-bed per-day revenue at care facilities, and allow managers to generate reports for the most critical sections of Medicare and Medicaid billing, and ensures compliance.

Because the advisors in the network are so well connected with each other and in the industries in which they work, entrepreneurs like Jay and Matt have not only the brain power and insight of their advisors, but also the combined expertise of their networks. And TAN advisors self-select the projects and entrepreneurs they work with, so the alignment between the experience of the advisor and the idea of the entrepreneur is tight. In the case of Gweepi, they definitely leveraged the power of the network. One advisor helped them find product development resources. A few TAN mentors provided introductions to other post-acute care sectors so they could maximize their potential. And now Gweepi is implementing within an network of eight care facilities and working on securing its first round of investment. Stay tuned – we haven’t heard the last of Gweepi. So, I hope you have been ok listening to me brag about my family—did I mention they are all good looking and funny, too? Because this kind of support and this kind of impact—through all of these projects and experiences and networks that our students have—is now available to your sons and daughters because they are a part of our WPI family. Not only are they part of a community of brilliant scientists and engineers, but they belong to a community of individuals that cares deeply. This is the kind of community that you and your family have joined. These are the kinds of people they are around. Not just intellectually curious, not just brilliant and innovative, but empathetic and committed to making our world better, using their brains and their hearts for good. Helping firefighters be safe. Improving the lives of people who struggle. Increasing care to those who need it. That's how the WPI family operates, and we are so glad you’re a part of it.

I’ll leave you with one hope—and that is that we be unabashedly optimistic about the future, considering who we are educating to lead it. I am absolutely convinced that our students and faculty, working together with others will make a long-lasting and positive impact. ‘Cause that’s how we do it in the WPI family.

Thanks for being here, and I look forward to your questions.

Laurie Leshin