WPI Establishes a New Project Center on Nantucket

Student Teams Will Pursue In-Depth Research on Real Issues Facing the Island Community
July 27, 2011

Image removed.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has established a project center on the island of Nantucket, where student teams will be able to pursue in-depth research in museum studies, energy use and conservation, sustainable agriculture, and other issues facing the community.

The new center was built upon the successful completion of nine pilot projects on the island over the past two years, which addressed issues as diverse as alternative energy, public awareness of Lyme disease, and the use of cell phone technology for self-guided tours of historic properties. The Nantucket site brings WPI's global project center total to 27, on five continents, and expands the reach of the university's project-based curriculum to help serve community needs closer to home.

"These projects offer real-world opportunities for WPI students, and provide Nantucket with valuable data and fresh perspectives on pressing problems," said the project center's director, Dominic Golding, adjunct associate professor in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division. "In the coming years a number of WPI teams will explore similar kinds of projects to address particular needs. In 2011, WPI expects to send 16 to 18 students--or between four and six project teams--to Nantucket. Based on our past experiences in Nantucket and around the globe, I'm certain that both the island and the students can benefit from this kind of focused research."

As a requirement for graduation from WPI, students must complete two projects in addition to their course work. Undertaken in the junior and senior years, these projects provide WPI students with opportunities to apply classroom and lab-acquired knowledge to solve real-world problems. Student projects are managed either on or off campus and often take place at sites that are facilitated by the university's Global Projects Program.

The junior year project, known as the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), facilitates student teams that tackle societal issues related to science and technology. Through this program, students address local issues, develop an understanding of other cultures, and see, firsthand, how they make a real impact on their host community. The senior year brings the Major Qualifying Project (MQP), through which students work in teams to define a problem and then develop novel and creative solutions.

The establishment of the new center in Nantucket is built upon the success of several pilot projects on the island. According to Golding, last October five teams totaling 16 students spent seven weeks preparing at WPI before spendng another seven weeks in residence on the island. There, they worked with local government, citizen groups, and a nonprofit organization to address key concerns facing the island’s population, which ranges from 12,000 in the winter to 60,000 in the summer.

One team looked into the feasibility of bringing so-called "smart grid" technology to the island as a way of making electric power users more aware of how they use energy, and providing options for using less, and at a lower rate. Other teams researched how electric automobiles might be received in the community, how the town's IT systems could be made more secure, how to promote awareness of tick-borne diseases, and the value of school field trips for the Maria Mitchell Association, a local nonprofit organization. Earlier projects in 2008 looked at how visitors to the island might use their cell phones for self-guided tours of historic properties owned by the Nantucket Historical Association, the prospects for wind power generation, and the need for affordable, green housing on the island.

The project teams' work on Nantucket was highly regarded by community members, who look forward to having them back, said Peter A. Morrison, a member of the town's Energy Study Committee. "The WPI project team working with the Energy Study Committee was an extremely impressive group of students," Morrison said. "They completed a necessary knowledge base on Nantucket's energy consumption, and they formulated actionable recommendations. They altogether provided an essential foundation for Nantucket to move forward in the near term with several renewable energy initiatives. Also, they provided us with a long-term vision for realizing smart grid technology."

For more than three decades, WPI has sent more engineering and science students abroad for academic research than any other university in the United States. More than 50 percent of students go off campus to conduct their IQPs, and to coordinate these activities, WPI has established project centers in Europe, Central and North America, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region. WPI has been conducting student research projects through its various project centers since 1980. Projects cover a wide range of topics, and sponsors include national and local government agencies, private corporations, and various museums, service organizations, and civic groups.

WPI's Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division, which administers the Global Projects Program, combines these unique educational programs with a research emphasis on local and regional sustainable development. WPI's research focuses on the strategies and needs of state and local governmental and non-governmental agencies engaged in the challenge of creating healthy, prosperous, and environmentally responsible localities and regions around the globe. Project teams are made up of competitively selected students of science, engineering, management, and the humanities who work on-site to solve a key problem for an organization. By working in multidisciplinary teams to address problems related to technology, society and human needs, students come to understand how their careers will impact--and be affected by--societal structures and cultural values.