Four students wearing white hard hats and protective glasses and three carrying clipboards smile together at their project site in Boston, Mass.

Bringing About Change in Beantown

Students ship up to Boston Project Center for work involving water quality, energy policy, and more

July 9, 2018
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With project centers located around the world, it can be easy to overlook the fact that students can make a difference without crossing state—or even city—lines. Several project centers (including Worcester, Nantucket, and Pioneer Valley) are located right here in Massachusetts, and give students the opportunity to delve deeper into a city they thought they knew, or explore a new place, all while contributing to ongoing efforts to improve environment, health, and quality of life in the area.

The Boston Project Center is one such location, and has been the setting for hundreds of students to collaborate on projects since its inception.

Associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Paul Mathisen and associate teaching professor of interdisciplinary and global studies Seth Tuler have co-directed the project center since 2012, when the center was in the process of transitioning from residential to commuter students. Both professors have lived, worked, or completed research in the city, and were excited by the prospect of sharing those experiences and connections with their students, so they decided to team up.

Students are able to complete a wide variety of projects that involve partnerships with state agencies and the City of Boston, as well as nongovernmental organizations. While project topics usually address issues such as water quality, stormwater management, energy policy, and climate change adaptation, past teams have also completed projects on youth development programs and designed exhibits for the New England Aquarium.

In addition, Tuler’s research in areas such as sea level rise, extreme weather, and nuclear power plant decommissioning addresses challenges facing Massachusetts in particular, and gives students an edge in their work. “The Boston Project Center helps me leverage [my research] to support student projects and further the work of agencies and NGOs in the Commonwealth,” he says.

“It’s a great city with a wide array of opportunities for our students. I also feel that WPI has a tremendous amount to offer and it’s important for us to maintain a presence in the Boston area.” -Paul Mathisen

“It’s a great city with a wide array of opportunities for our students,” Mathisen adds. “I also feel that WPI has a tremendous amount to offer and it’s important for us to maintain a presence in the Boston area.”

The unveiling of WPI Seaport, the university’s new space in the heart of the Seaport District, will also play an important role in the university's being able to do just that. “It’ll be a great asset,” Mathisen says, explaining that the location provides a home base for students and advisors to go during down time, or to hold meetings with sponsors and corporations. “Overall, the facility will allow for more flexibility and a greater sense of camaraderie.”

Student Experiences

Carla Romo ’19 and her project team put a whole new meaning behind the phrase “love that dirty water” by working with the city of Brockton to determine alternatives for better use of the Aquaria Desalination Plant. The project was sponsored by the Northeast Water Innovation Network (NEWIN).

While completing their project, Romo and her team had a chance to meet and mingle with a number of water industry leaders, including the CEO, senior vice president, and senior advisor of Poseidon Water, a water treatment company that owns and operates the largest desalination plant in the country, something she describes as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In addition to this unique networking experience, Romo particularly enjoyed working at the Boston Project Center because it allowed her to travel, but still return to campus and relax with friends or participate in extracurricular activities at the end of the day.

“It was a great balance between being off campus and not completely detached from it,” she explains.

The students aren’t the only ones who are fans of the Boston Project Center. While Tuler and Mathisen enjoy many parts of co-directing the center—collaborating with sponsors, sharing their favorite local spots with students (“Boston is such a vibrant city,” Tuler says), making new friends and connections throughout the city—they both agree that their favorite part of the job is seeing firsthand what students are able to do in seven short weeks. The Boston Project Center reception, an annual event held to celebrate the students’ work, is a particular highlight for Mathisen.

“It’s always nice,” he says, “seeing how much the students have accomplished and how much the sponsors appreciate their contributions.”

- By Allison Racicot