October 02, 2013

WPI students know how to solve problems and are always willing and eager to go into the world and find ways to make things better. This week, social entrepreneur Martin Burt is making his fourth visit to campus to show students just how important the skills they are perfecting now will be as they move into the world.

As part of WPI’s informal Social Entrepreneur in Residence program, Burt will spend this week on campus talking to classes, visiting with faculty, and giving presentations to student and campus groups.

This week’s visit also brings Burt to campus for the preview screening of Extreme by Design, a PBS documentary that follows Stanford students as they design products to solve various developing world problems. On Thursday, Oct. 3, at 7 pm in Olin Hall 107, Burt and mechanical engineering professor Diran Apelian will lead a discussion after the screening.

The movie mirrors what WPI students have done for years, says associate dean Kris Wobbe, so Burt offers students the benefit of his understanding from a global perspective. Burt will explain challenges students may not normally consider or encounter until they are in the middle of a new culture, says Wobbe. “He can affirm what was done well or how you can do better,” says Wobbe.

Burt first arrived at WPI two years ago as a GPS (Great Problems Seminar) kickoff lecturer, says Wobbe. “We were impressed with him and with his ability to deliver his message to students, and we asked him to come back. We’d like to keep having him come back forever.”

Burt wants students to become aware of how many factors can cause even a technically perfect project to fail.

Burt is no stranger to social entrepreneurship. He is the founder of Fundacion Paraguaya, which strives to create sustainable solutions to eliminating poverty, and co-founder of Teach a Man to Fish, which supports skill-building education projects to help young people. He has also served as chief of staff for Paraguay’s president and as mayor of Paraguay’s capital Asuncion.

“I will be sharing with the students the challenges of multidimensional poverty that includes income, health, education, and infrastructure,” says Burt. “And how technology affects these issues at the grassroots, municipal, and government levels.” He wants students to become aware of how many factors, some they are not even aware of, can cause even a technically perfect project to fail.

When students try to map out a project, they often forget to include the mapmaker, says Burt, and all the prejudices, cultural values, and world visions that a mapmakers holds. “It is important for students to understand they are part of the map,” says Burt. “Students have to be aware that their own prejudices are part of the solution and part of the problem.”

“He brings a unique and incredibly rich perspective on what it takes to really go out and help people in the developing world,” says Wobbe. Burt’s approachable manner and his passion for his message resonates with the students and makes his words memorable.

And for Burt, his visits to WPI are invigorating. “I like the techie side of WPI,” he says. “They are sitting on a whole bunch of solutions. They are very fast and very idealistic. I love that about WPI. I like being here because I also learn.”

“I think it is such a marvelous opportunity for students and for the university as a whole to have a connection to someone whose reach is so broad,” says Wobbe.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil