Great Problems Seminar Marks 10 Years

Keynote speaker Quontay Turner ’11 recalls confidence and skills gained from program
December 22, 2016

From improving public health in Africa to using solar energy to heat the swimming pool here on campus, over the last decade the Great Problems Seminar course has challenged first-year students to work collaboratively to find solutions for global problems. And along the way their experiences have helped them select coursework and gain the confidence and skills they’ll need for their capstone projects and to build successful careers.

The program, initiated in 2007, held its fall Poster Presentation Day last week, featuring project work by 60 small teams in seven disciplines, aimed at solving problems of global importance. The two-term course immerses students into university-level research and introduces them to the project-based curriculum at WPI.

Xavier Hines-Coombs of Springfield was on the team that worked on Elevated Composting Latrines in Kiribati, a project that took on a unique issue in the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where open defecation and a sparse supply of fresh water contribute to a high mortality rate.

Xavier Hines-Coombs explains his team's project.

“We decided on this project because it had a unique problem,” Hines-Coombs said. “They have to have elevated composting latrines because their fresh water is right up above sea level. What we hope to accomplish, with the 65 percent mortality rate they have, is to see all the open defecation cease, and have them be able to have fertilizer for their crops.”

Victoria Lossigian of Westford and Liz Graveline of Litchfield, N.H., discussed The Bee Project, which examined the loss of honeybees in the area of Salina, Calif., an agricultural center dependent on pollinators.

“Our project is meant to increase honey bee population, due to the pollinator decline,” Lossigian said. We hope that this project will eventually increase the pollinators as well as crop pollination over time.”

Graveline said she decided on the project after reading articles about the pollinator crisis. “The best way to do a project is to do it on something you’re interested in,” she said. “I kind of rallied a few people who were also interested in it. When we were conducting our research, we found an article on how California was affected. We thought it would be a good place to focus on because a lot of the U.S. crops come from California. We picked Salina because we found there’s a big beekeeper association there.”

Following the poster presentation, the keynote speaker for the program was Quontay Turner ’11. Turner worked in WPI’s offices of Admissions and Multicultural Affairs before joining Emerson College recently as senior assistant director of multicultural recruitment. She shared her experiences in the university’s first GPS offering as a first-year in 2007, saying it helped her decide on her major, but more important, taught her the importance of and how to work as a team member.

Quontay Turner addresses students.

“My first semester I took math, science, and humanities classes. I was confused on what humanities class to take, and I got a strong suggestion to take this new class called the Great Problems Seminar,” she recalled. In her GPS course, Power the World, she learned about various energy technologies, how to use them to make a better environment, but those insights were tempered by the realization that she would have to work with three other students on her project.

The project was difficult and challenging, but unlike her unpleasant experience with high school group work, she concluded the project with a sense of pride, accomplishment, and confidence, she said. “It was one of the hardest experiences of my WPI career. Coming out of it, I remember feeling so accomplished,” she said. “With great challenges and hard work come accomplishment.

“Power the World taught me a lot about the energy crisis, how to take large problems and find smaller solutions to them, and thinking about diversifying our thoughts so we have better thought-out solutions. But it also taught me about life in general. GPS singlehandedly prepared me for my future at WPI, and helped me solidify a major. … I really found my passions in clean energy and energy technology, which led to my double major in civil engineering and environment studies.”

Poster Presentation Day in full swing.

It also prepared Turner for group work, which she did more of in her sophomore year, leading up to her IQP and MQP. “In my junior year for my IQP, I was ready and I was comfortable and I was confident,” she said. “Going into my senior year, my MQP was a little more challenging, but I looked back to my GPS experience, and making something from nothing is what I took away from it.

“In the real world you’re not going to be the expert, you’re not going to know everything. And chances are, you’re not going to be doing it by yourself, you’re going to be doing a group project. These are all lessons you’ve learned in your GPS project.”

Turner pointed out that she obtained her first internship as a direct result of her GPS experience, and extolled those who had just presented their projects to add their GPS projects to their resumes. “This is hard work that pays off,” she said. “You’ll see the benefits coming in immediately afterwards.”

This year, some 60 projects were showcased in the Rubin Campus Center Odeum. The winners and runners-up in each category are listed below.

Judges' Winners

Humanitarian Engineering

Winner: From "citizenshit" to "citizenship" in Northern India

Andrea Claudio, Alexander Johnson, Sofia Reyes Castillo, Sean Tidd

Runner up: Improving Rocinha's Drainage Canal

Tanner Gauthier, Andrew Montero, Ari Trey-Masters

The World's Water

Winner (tie): Providing Potable Water to Peruvian Informal Settlements

Julien Ataya, Gregory Kashmanian, Jeremy Koen, Gavin Sabol, Joseph Yuen

Fog Nets in Chennai

Tommy Lee, William Roe, Gabriel Rodriguez, Nicholas Weddington

Food Sustainability

Winner: Too Much Brown in Puget Sound

Kristen Chan, Jessica Hatt, Maricella Ramirez

Runner up: Fighting Food Waste in Worcester Public Schools

Joe Moutinho, Kyle Reese, Cherish Springer, Tauny Tambolleo

Recover, Reuse, and Recycle: Building a Lasting World

Winner: Perish to Profit: Processing Ripe Tomatoes to Generate an Income Stream for the Paraguayan Food Bank

Michael DeFrancesco, Sinead Flanagan, Olivia Gibbs, Emily Schneider

Runner up: E-Cycling Paraguay: For a Better Future For Them and For You

Kristy Giocoman, Hector Gonzalez, Ian Mello, Tom Vagnini

Heal the World

Winner: Increasing Accessible HIV Screening in Zimbabwe

Alexa Itsines, Katie Long, Trinity Tedsten, Carly Whittle, Kristen Southan

Runner up: Educating Youth About Sexual Health

Amanda Boehm, Aleye Momodu, Huyen Nguyen, Rosa Reynoso

Biosphere, Atmosphere, and Human Fears

Winner: River of Mercury: Solutions for Tomorrow

Adam Collins, Zach Huaman, MaryLouise Ross, Braden St. Jacques

Runner up: Reconsider Litter

Rachel Aston, Jillian Comeau, Madison Cunniff, Caroline Murphy

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Winner: Group Effort: Study Group Matching Service

Austin Hartshorn, Nicoli Liedtke, Joseph Petitti, Alp Piskin

Runner up: Spreading Privilege Awareness at WPI

Matthew Clark, Alana Keating, Peter Rakauskas, Kyle Wood

People's Choice Award Winner

Educating Youth About Sexual Health

Amanda Boehm, Aleye Momodu, Huyen Nguyen, Rosa Reynoso

The Winner of the 'Create the Next Great Problems Seminar' Contest is Elio Daci

Social Justice in the Digital Age: A class that addresses social justice issues and the impact of the digital age on these issues. With smartphones and the internet, issues quickly spread and become known globally. Whether it be the #blacklivesmatter campaign or the Stand with Standing Rock movement opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, social injustices all over the world are no longer local issues but global problems. This class could examine these issues and address social justice problems. (Faculty interested in team teaching such a course should email Kris Wobbe.)