Moscow Center

Next Stop, Moscow • Russia is somewhat of a mysterious land. Sure, it has produced greats in dance and literature, such as Tolstoy. It was first in space with Sputnik. And the country was the world’s first to develop laser eye surgery — and sour cream. But with 12 time zones, all kinds of weather and every single element on the periodic table found in this far-off region, there are many more things to explore, learn, and understand.
December 13, 2013

WPI sent its first group of 13 students to its Moscow Project Center last year — 11 working on IQPs and two on MQPs — and a new group is being recruited now to go over next month.

“They’ll need to be up to snuff on Russian history,” says Professor Svetlana Nikitina, who leads the Moscow Project Center. As the 2013 group discovered, it’s expected. “Russians expect you to know history,” she says. “It’s a challenge to have all Moscow-bound students up-to-date on … Russia’s role in World War II, the 1917 Revolution, and the Soviet period.” Luckily, says Nikitina, the inaugural group was full of history buffs.

During a recent Brown Bag Lunch presentation on the Moscow Project Center, Nikitina presented some of the best parts of the first trip, according to student surveys—among them, borscht, the metro system, and Russian friends. “I was surprised at how quickly we integrated with the Russian students at the project center,” says mechanical engineering major Jacob Ostling ’15.

Unique Challenges

All in all, says Nikitina, this year’s trip went well. But there can be complications in just getting over there, she notes. “You have to have an official invitation and visa,” and an HIV test. WPI’s partner university, where students stayed, luckily handled a lot of the paperwork and details, making for a smoother experience. Russian current events were tackled with summer prep and ID2050 in D-Term. Students also had some basic language training before heading to Russia.

But even with preparation, Ostling says this chance to work in a collaborative environment in a foreign country was a valuable opportunity. “It gave me good experience coordinating work between a lot of different parties, who all tend to be working toward slightly different goals.”

Other challenges, says Nikitina, included tight regulations on international students participating in any activities once on Russian soil. WPI’s partner school, the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, had a schedule that wasn’t in sync with WPI’s, making collaboration logistics more difficult. Also, Russian volunteer participants in the program made for inconsistent contributions and policies with things like plagiarism, she says.

Project Work

Some of the collaborative projects, says Nikitina, involved marketing, branding, or redesigning small appliances made by a Moscow manufacturer. Ostling says he looks at a favorite morning beverage in a whole new way, now. “I learned more than I will ever need to about brewing coffee while writing the IQP report,” he says, “from practical experience, and because the project was on a coffee grinder.”

Other projects in Russia involve arctic and climate change to help utility and electric companies adapt to these changing conditions. WPI engineering students and finance students in Russia worked on solutions and modifications in areas such as IT and fire protection, as well.

Also on the environmental side, WPI students worked with members of the management team at Ugra National Park to help with efforts to combat industrial waste dumping, to monitor water quality, and to raise awareness of the unique plant and animal life in the area.

Growing the Base

Moving forward, Nikitina says, WPI will continue to work on strengthening its ties with the Financial University. Her team will continue to build a sponsor network and diversify its projects and perhaps broaden its scope to the St. Petersburg area. And WPI will also continue to engage Russian students in various interactions — “where the real magic happens,” she says. “This was truly special in 2013.”

By Susan Shalhoub