The Global Classroom: At WPI It's a Life-Changing Adventure

October 25, 2012

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By Amanda Ryan, '14

For many of us students, the start of a new term on WPI's campus means the beginning of a life-changing adventure. After months of anticipation and preparation, we are headed off campus to WPI project centers around the world. Our charge: to complete requirements for Humanities and Arts, interactive, or major projects. Around campus you’ll hear these last two called the IQP and the MQP.

As part of the university's hallmark project-based curriculum, the WPI Global Projects Program provides the opportunity for more than 60 percent of its students to complete at least one project requirement at an off-campus project center. This integral element of a WPI education connects to its founding principle of theory and practice—at WPI we are focused on the practical application of knowledge to technical and societal problems.

We work in small teams under the guidance of faculty project advisors to address problems posed by external agencies and organizations around the world. The IQP (Interactive Qualifying Project), WPI's most prevalent global project experience, is an interdisciplinary requirement involving applied research that connects science and technology with social issues and human needs. Those of us attending these project centers have spent months getting ready for our time away. Culture and language lessons, project research, and a final proposal are all a part of this preparation phase. IQP Project Centers this term include projects in South Africa, Italy, Costa Rica, Nantucket, Mass., Washington, D.C., and Worcester. Most centers have between 20 and 30 students in attendance, accompanied by two faculty advisors for each trip.

The MQP (Major Qualifying Project), completed for the senior year, requires solving problems through projects in our specific fields of study. This year, B-Term MQPs include assignments in Panama, China, and Cambridge, Mass., as well as projects in London and New York (Wall Street).

The study-abroad-program at WPI is unique. Compared to many other colleges that offer classroom-style study-abroad programs, WPI gives students and faculty advisors the opportunity to expand their learning experiences outside of the classroom with the chance to work on open-ended problems as part of their degree requirements. The knowledge we gain from these global experiences is invaluable. In the classroom, we learn the technical aspects of science and engineering, but through global project work we're able to put into perspective how what we're learning applies to the real world. These experiences help us develop important skills that are often hard to gain through traditional classroom learning—working around cultural barriers, solving open-ended problems, conducting research, and communicating effectively with diverse groups. Not only do these global project experiences expand a variety of skills but they also help us learn more about ourselves, changing the way we view ourselves and the world.

The specific projects that students work on change from year to year; some of them focus on solving environmental, health, safety, economic, education, and sustainability issues across the globe. Some centers have a particular focus that many of their projects are based around. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, projects often focus on community capacity building, and water resource management. At the Washington, D.C., center, students have suggested new policies to the Consumer Products Safety Commission and helped the National Science Foundation evaluate the impact and effectiveness of its programs.

We become more globally aware as we solve pressing issues impacting today's world, and it brings a more meaningful educational experience to those of us perusing cutting-edge careers in science and technology.

"I think that being in an environment that you're not used to, that's out of your comfort zone, helps you to think on your feet," says Leanne Johnson, assistant director of the Global Projects Program. "You're working with people you've never worked with before and you’re facing problems that are real. Students don't often get the opportunity to go abroad without being set back in their graduation dates. Because our project program is built in—it doesn't set our students back. And they're working on unique problems in global environments."

"The project experience seeps into students' lives in ways they can’t imagine," says Interdisciplinary and Global Studies professor Dominic Golding. "It affects the way they interact with their colleagues, it helps them gain perspective on the project at hand, and it gives them the capacity to listen to others. It's truly a transformative experience."

The education students receive at WPI provides not only extensive knowledge in areas of science, technology, and engineering but also a strong background in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. These are unique qualities for such a technically oriented institution that make for not only more capable engineers, but better human beings.

Learn more about the WPI Global Projects Program.

(Amanda Ryan is a Biomedical Engineering major who will travel to Thailand in Term-C for her IQP.)