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Global Impact: The London Project Center

September 01, 2015
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The London Project Center

The numbers are daunting: the Royal Academy of Engineering reports that the United Kingdom will need more than one million engineers and technicians in the next five years, a shortfall blamed on the recession and limitations of the UK’s own educational system.

For Shannon Healey ’17 and a trio of WPI classmates, the challenge was a call to action.

In May and June of this year, the students traveled to the university’s London Project Center, where they worked with the London Transport Museum to create the Inspire Engineering Mentoring Program, a curriculum designed to generate interest in the field among high school students. They also developed the Full Speed Ahead Program to encourage students to pursue a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) career.

“I had been inspired to pursue a career in STEM as a child,” says Healey, a chemical engineering major from Houston. “By participating in this project, I felt as if I could return this favor and inspire other likeminded individuals.”

Founded in 1987, the London Project Center was the first of more than 40 international WPI centers that now dot the globe. Henry Strage ‘54, a founding member of the Project Center, recalls that London was an obvious location to test the concept abroad both culturally and linguistically. “It turned out to be a stimulating, hands-on way to keep in touch with WPI and interact with current students,” says Strage. “Plus, the learning curve for expanding the project work to other locations was made a lot easier as a result of the lessons learned in London.”

Each academic year, 48 students – mostly juniors – travel to England for seven weeks to work on a research project with 100 organizations that include local governments, museums, and nonprofit groups.

The students have completed more than 300 projects to date, covering everything from developing museum exhibits to using photovoltaic systems in affordable housing, to working with London boroughs to promote environmental sustainability and carbon reduction.

Project center work allows students to complete their IQP (Interactive Qualifying Project), a requirement for graduation. But working abroad serves other purposes, says Dominic Golding, project center co-director and an associate teaching professor in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division.

“We bill this as a pre-professional experience,” he notes. “It’s very intense. We expect the students to put in a typical 40- to 45-hour week at the offices of their host organization. For most students, it presents them with an opportunity to go outside their comfort zone. Interacting with people who have a slightly different view on the world than you do can be a compelling and powerful experience.”

Students select any of several projects developed by Golding. They spend seven weeks prior to leaving WPI doing background work and writing a research proposal.

The London Project Center was created and modeled after projects administered by individual faculty members in the early to mid-1980s.

Another UK center, the Worcester, England, Project Center, is scheduled to start its work this academic year.

That effort was pushed by Lord Faulkner of Worcester, who wants to promote interaction between the University of Worcester and WPI. In September, WPI President Laurie Leshin visited the West Midlands city.

This article was originally published in the WPI Journal. For the current issue, please visit the WPI Journal website.