Building Bridges from Worcester to the World
In a world where significant challenges span countries and continents, there’s no place for manufactured borderlines—a philosophy at the core of WPI’s distinctive approach to education and embodied in how the university’s four schools work together. For their part, WPI Deans Jean King and Mimi Sheller at the helms, respectively, of the university’s School of Arts & Sciences and The Global School, recognize and actively leverage the synergy of their schools’ disciplines and expertise to prepare students in every area of study (including engineering and business) to make an impact on the major social, technological, ecological, and economic challenges of our times.
“When WPI was founded, it was based on building solutions, not just for Worcester, but for the world,” noted King, the Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences. “In that respect, we’ve been global since day one, but like everything this university does, we keep innovating because we want to increase our impact. This means both personal impact for our students as well as the change we can help to create in the world. With The Global School, established in 2020, we are building upon WPI’s longstanding integration of STEM education with humanities, arts, social sciences, and business perspectives—and that elevates the experience for both students and faculty as they come together with partners, both local and global, to understand problems and to design solutions collaboratively.”
Where WPI’s School of Arts & Sciences weaves together the scientific, technological, artistic, and humanistic innovation that is found in all corners of WPI, The Global School’s work amplifies WPI’s commitment to have students and faculty partner with communities in defining issues together, and subsequently co-designing solutions.
“Our STEM focus, our project-based approach, and our shared purpose to promote discovery and communication, advance knowledge, and improve the human condition is why there is remarkable synergy between the two schools,” explains King.
That the world is in desperate need of STEM-based solutions is hardly controversial. Climate change, economic instability, and sustainable energy—to name a few—beg experts in the STEM-focused disciplines to point the way forward, but feasible answers require broad expertise across disciplines. Real solutions, notes Sheller, “demand creativity and a critical lens, both pillars of the humanities and arts and of the social sciences, and the global perspective of stepping outside your comfort zone. Solving complex global challenges will only work if we’re co-designing and co-creating these solutions with the people who will actually be using the technology,” she explains. “And that is what sets our students apart: they have taken their ideas out into the world to learn from others and collaborate with others.” This, she says, is the WPI model of global education, working across different social and cultural contexts with long-lasting outcomes for both WPI students and its partners around the world.
Understanding those contexts is essential, according to Kathryn Moncrief, professor and head of the Department of Humanities & Arts (HUA) in the School of Arts & Sciences. “Interdisciplinary collaboration, within and across WPI’s schools, increases opportunities for meaningful student engagement and learning, as well as faculty research and scholarship,” Moncrief says. “Through our work in HUA, all WPI students are exposed to the breadth, diversity, and creativity of human experience and guided and challenged to think critically and independently, to communicate openly and collaboratively, and to reflect on their responsibilities to others in local, national, and global communities.”
“When you’re looking to address issues of social justice or policy, these issues are tied to people,” says King. “Our mission, our responsibility, is to guide students in developing cultural curiosity, critical thinking skills, and an understanding of what it means to be global. Through the School of Arts & Sciences, WPI provides that foundation, empowering scientists and engineers to create long-lasting impact.”
Similarly, The Global School puts great emphasis on community-based research and ethical learning, requiring that students work collaboratively with their project sponsors and partners abroad—listening first and working together to solve problems.
Like King, Sheller emphasizes that students must first possess the cultural literacy and listening skills necessary to be effective collaborators—a truth, Sheller notes, that has not always been self-evident. “Some externally designed technologies have harmed the very people they were designed to help, or have created new problems,” she explains. “WPI turns that paradigm around, training the next generation to listen deeply and to think about the impact an engineering or science project is going to have on a community. The School of Arts & Sciences curriculum helps students understand the cross-cultural context and the social justice issues that may be at play.”
“Naturally, we provide students the background they need to accomplish their projects, but they need more,” says King. “If a student plans to travel to Ecuador, for example, and they first learn to speak Spanish, learn the history of that country and why people live as they do, that’s when they’re really positioned to bring theory to practice.”
Rob Krueger, professor and head of the Department of Social Science & Policy Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, is one of a growing number of faculty who model the humanistic approach to global project work that the alliance between the two schools is designed to foster. In his work leading the Institute of Science and Technology for Development, and as director of the Ghana Project Center, Krueger inspires fellow researchers and scholars and their students to apply the skills of social sciences.
In a recent e-waste project in Ghana, where the government was cracking down on the practice of stripping wires to resell the copper inside due to the release of noxious fumes, student teams asked questions before rushing to a solution. “This project really linked culture, social science, and policy,” says Krueger. By understanding what had already been tried in search of a third way—not the existing approach and not an outright ban—the team devised a burn box and filter capable of capturing the toxic fumes, constructed with charcoal, citrus juice, and coconut fibers, all locally sourced.
“As a result, policy makers could see that many Ghanaians were recycling existing waste products and making a living without a negative environmental impact,” he explains. “We used a co-designed approach, learning from people’s experiences and their current livelihoods.”
At the core of The Global School’s mission is a commitment to creating a more just and ethical world. To do so effectively, students must be able to approach these challenges with a humanistic perspective—and for that objective, both King and Sheller affirm, the School of Arts & Sciences is the perfect partner. “When we give our students a place where music, art, and design thinking are integral, we educate, excite, and engage them for global impact,” says King. “It takes all of us to help our students be of and for the world.”