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Students observe a robot in action.

WPI Global STEM Education Initiative Delivers What the World Needs Now

Initiative aims to continue leveraging WPI’s expertise and resources for use around the world 

October 12, 2022

With a growing need to empower and encourage more students around the world in STEM disciplines, WPI's Global STEM Education Initiative leverages the university’s expertise and resources to help other countries and underserved schools in the United States provide high-quality, accessible K-12 STEM education the world needs now. 

For more than 50 years, WPI has shared its expertise and resources to grow the STEM pipeline, inspire and equip the next generation of STEM leaders, support the educators who introduce students to STEM, and collaborate with global partners in their own communities. With the programming, resources, activities, and support provided by this initiative, WPI is increasing its work with educators around the world to customize and enhance their STEM educational systems.  

“WPI has recognized the importance of global demand for STEM education for a very long time,” says Joseph Doiron, director of the initiative, assistant teaching professor in The Global School, and co-director of the Global Lab. “At the core of WPI’s value proposition is hands-on STEM teaching and learning. That’s always the starting point. When you couple that with our global presence in 50-plus project centers in all parts of the world, we come equipped with a global network of relationships that is different from other places. We partner with people who share our commitment to tapping teams’ multidisciplinary knowledge and lived experience to the fullest benefit. We are already doing this with local communities and around the world.”  

Whether it is engaging students in STEM at the Farm Stay Project Center’s working farm and educational nature center in Paxton, Mass., or using project-based learning modules to establish a consistent method for training teachers in Africa with the Math and Science for Sub-Saharan Africa (MS4SSA) initiative, WPI’s approach is holistic and purposeful. As the globe continues to face increasingly complex challenges, a more diverse population of professionals who can bring different lenses, experiences, questions, and passions to labs and boardroom tables is essential. Creating, translating, and deploying new scientific insights and technologies to benefit everyone’s health and well-being will depend upon the inclusion of many perspectives. 

“Where there’s a world that really needs STEM for it to develop, there’s a new generation of young people at many levels that really need STEM to realize their full potential.” -Wole Soboyejo

While STEM concepts are rooted in concrete principles, WPI Interim President Winston "Wole" Soboyejo stresses that dreams, imagination, and curiosity are essential to truly understand those principles and to fuel the work it takes to bring them to reality in new, innovative ways, all for the benefit of humanity. Both the concrete principles of science and creative imagination are critical to preparing and inspiring the STEM leaders of tomorrow.  

“If you dream big, even when you have very limited resources, the size of your dreams determines the scope of your impact,” says Soboyejo. “For me, just as important as getting kids excited about STEM, we need to encourage them to dream big and to surround themselves with people that encourage and nurture that dream.”  

That philosophy takes center stage this month at the FIRST Global Challenge, an annual Olympics-style international robotics competition that brings high school teams from more than 180 countries together in Geneva, Switzerland, in the spirit of solving global challenges together.  

For the competition, WPI and DEKA Research and Development Corp. partnered to create the Experiential Robotics Platform (XRP)—a simple, easy-to-build, experiential robotic kit. The project was partially supported by a National Science Foundation grant through the Engineering For Us All (E4USA) organization and allows each team to take a first version kit home with them, nearly 200 in total. As part of the robotics kit, teams gain access to a WPI-developed curriculum that helps educators build lesson plans around it. 

Robotics has proved to be an excellent and adaptable tool for capturing the curiosity of students and stimulating a broader interest in STEM. No matter the age of the user, once the concepts in robotics—from mathematics and computing, to engineering and physics—are applied while building or programming a robot, the ideas become concrete and useful. 

“A tangible and fun tool like a robot is a great STEM entry point for students to see the potential of their own musings,” Soboyejo says. “The great thing about dreaming is that it fires up your effort to then translate the dream into reality.”  

Preparing and Inspiring the STEM Leaders of Tomorrow

Global STEM Education Initiative at WPI

Producing Well-rounded, Purpose-focused Students and Educators 

As a founding principle, WPI prepares and supports future scientists, engineers, and business leaders in their journeys to become the empathetic, collaborative, and resourceful STEM professionals the world needs. But the university’s parallel expertise includes a purposeful and thoughtful approach to inspiring and supporting the educators who teach the content students depend on. Students can’t progress without teachers who understand the latest developments, have the tools to convey the information, and are themselves excited by the material. 

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MS4SSA participants work on a robot together. alt
MS4SSA participants work on a robot during a past training in Gambia.

“The Global STEM Education Initiative will increase our impact on things that many of us across campus care deeply about, which is giving educators the ability to transform their communities through their classrooms,” says Doiron. “Our approach is to understand the problems in the local context and share our expertise and help people create solutions based on the local conditions. That lends itself extremely well to training STEM educators. If we can train and educate the people who are going to educate future STEM leaders, we can maximize our own impact and achieve these goals much faster.” 

Students don’t work in vacuums; they depend on engaged educators to show them what’s possible and encourage their curiosity. In turn, educators must have support to continue to teach the curriculum and programs. “We wanted to start the Global STEM Education Initiative and leverage all WPI’s resources to support the teachers, stay with them, and help them be successful,” says Brad Miller, former director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center and senior fellow for the university’s new Global STEM Education Initiative. “We want to make sure we have the teachers’ backs.” 

Some examples of WPI’s established student and educator paths: 

STEM Education in Action 

When students see their work in real use, it reinforces their commitment. In summer 2021, Elitumaini (Eli) Swai ’23 (BS chemical engineering, MS management), launched Sayansi Ambassadors to initiate applied learning experiences to primary school students and teachers in Tanzania with a long-term goal of reducing unemployment rates through fostering creativity, inspiring, encouraging, and sparking the love for science subjects for the young generation. The group’s first project used hands-on teaching for electrical circuits and saw how the experiential learning model helped the students make the connections between the theoretical science concepts and the problem in front of them.  

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Elitumaini Swai smiles and flashes a thumbs up with several young students gathered behind her. alt
Elitumaini Swai '23 (center)

When a science teacher struggled to deliver computer-related material without needed equipment, the Women’s Impact Network awarded its largest grant ever to Sayansi Ambassadors to help purchase iPads for the students. The technology gave access to computer lessons which, says Swai, are vital in today’s fast-changing, technologically advancing world.   

The project also sparked a revelation for Swai. “I grew up thinking that the goal of life is to have a lot of money, i.e., study hard, perform well, earn a good income, live happily ever after,” she says. “When I started this project, I realized that I was very rejuvenated and happy any moment I spent thinking about ways of accomplishing this impactful project. Then slowly I started realizing it's because I see the impact on the children, I experience it, I hear it, and I feel it. This is especially because I grew up in the same environment, so I feel what it is like to miss out on certain privileges of life. All of these have been my greatest satisfactions from doing the project.” 

Doing Good in the World 

Swai’s takeaway is exactly what Soboyejo envisions. “As you go through life inspired by doing things for more than yourself, I do think those dreams need to be a lot more than yourself,” he says. “They’re not about personal position or ambition, they’re about the good you can do in the world when you use the knowledge you have to solve problems that matter.” 

As students take home the XRP [Beta], they will be the latest tangible example the Global STEM Education Initiative’s mission for accessible STEM, says Soboyejo. “I think there’s no better time than now for WPI to bring this together,” he says. “Where there’s a world that really needs STEM for it to develop, there’s a new generation of young people at many levels that really need STEM to realize their full potential.” 

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

WPI presidential search advisory group member
We collaborate with the local community to support engaging STEM learning opportunities they might not otherwise have access to. Our vision is a world in which educators guide relevant, integrated, and inclusive STEM with their students and community.
Kathy Chen
Executive Director, STEM Education Center
We’re hearing from teachers who say ASSISTments gives them important data, affirming our belief that pairing new technology with effective teaching strategies is critical to improving education in this country.
Neil Heffernan
Director, WPI’s Learning Sciences & Technologies Program and WPI computer science professor who developed ASSISTments with his wife, Cristina Lindquist Heffernan
Krueger
We try to prepare students to learn how to match their ethics with their career and academic interests in order to use their science and technological background to do something positive in the world.”
Rob Krueger
Department Head, Social Science and Policy Studies
Dean Mimi Sheller
The interdisciplinary, project-based learning and global project work that WPI has developed is what we need right now. The world faces so many challenges. Now more than ever, we need global connections to build a more socially just world.
Mimi Sheller
Dean, The Global School
Professor Stafford Headshot
My goal is to get a light bulb turned on and show [students] something they haven't seen before.
Ken Stafford
Retired Director, Robotics Resource Center
WPI professor headshot
The Great Problems Seminar establishes a sense of humility in that it allows students to understand that they don’t have all the answers, but they can co-create answers with people who will let them into their worlds.
Kris Wobbe
Director, Center for Project-Based Learning

WPI Global STEM Education Resources

WPI is uniquely positioned for this effort based on our half-century of leadership in project-based STEM education at the university level, our record of bringing innovation in STEM to the K-12 level, and our 50+ project centers on six continents. Resources for the Global STEM Education Initiative include the following:  

  • Robotics Resource Center  An online course is available for teacher training in the use of the XRP robot kits that are newly developed by WPI and FIRST. This course has been designed specifically to meet the needs of pre-college teachers with no previous experience with robotics. Both graphical (Blocky) and conventional (Python) programming languages are introduced.  Also, online support is provided for questions relating to robot kit construction and use. 
  • Institute of Science and Technology for Development (InSTeD)  The university has established the Institute of Science and Technology for Development (InSTeD) to bring WPI’s expertise in collaboration and project-based learning to faculty teams and creates hubs where social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers can work together. Teams work with partners around the world to solve problems that matter to communities. 
  • Global Lab  WPI’s Global Lab provides a media makerspace in the Innovation Studio to help engage partners and strengthen the worldwide knowledge and practice ecosystem among our community. Tools in the Global Lab allow for transmedia storytelling, creative scholarship, and communication with local and global partners. 
  • Master of Mathematics for Educators and Master of Physics for Educators  These degree programs enable teachers to enhance the content and implementation of their courses to engage students and give them a more effective learning experience. The emphasis is on immediate impact—course content can be applied in the students’ classroom right away. 
  • MS in Science and Technology for Innovation in Global Development  This degree program focuses on global technology and development. It combines the student’s passion for technological and scientific innovation with cross-cultural design thinking to address pressing challenges and create change that will impact people and communities around the globe. 
  • ASSISTments  The ASSISTments platform powers learning acceleration by ensuring that curriculum-aligned, real-time data informs student support in every context. ASSISTments empowers users with data, to reinforce learning experiences from human teachers and tutors, and to deliver computer-based learning aligned to their needs.    
  • STEM Education Center  The center seeks systemic ways to broaden the participation in STEM, especially by those that have been historically excluded. The STEM Education Center is dedicated to the strengthening of STEM learning ecosystems through partnerships among teachers, administrators, community members, and funders. 
  • Center for Project-Based Learning  Through the center, faculty and administrators from colleges and universities around the world benefit from 50 years of WPI’s experience and expertise in project-based learning to apply toward their efforts, whether it’s to implement, improve, evaluate, or integrate project-based learning on their campuses. The center also supports the continued development of expertise and excellence in project-based pedagogy. 
  • Math and Science for Sub-Saharan Africa (MS4SSA) With support from the World Bank, this program uses modules in project-based learning, K-12 science and math, robotics, 3D printing, and materials science and engineering to train the trainers who, in turn, train teachers to teach science and mathematics to students in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through this initiative, WPI works collaboratively with stakeholders from 23 African countries and over 150 development partners from around the world to explore global best practices and develop strategies to improve STEM opportunities for students. 

The Road to Geneva

WPI is in Geneva, Switzerland October 13-16, 2022 for the FIRST Global Challenge and XPrize ESG Leadership Summit. During the challenge, WPI will unveil the XRP (Experiential Robotic Platform), a groundbreaking, low-cost robotics system developed with DEKA Research and Development Corp. to give students around the world hands-on access to robotics education and initiatives. Read about how and why in the stories below.