August 26, 2009

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On Thursday, August 27, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will host MIT Professor Randolph Kirchain for a lecture on the challenges facing global sustainability. The talk will launch the new academic year's "Great Problems Seminars," which are sponsored by a gift from the Eric Hahn Family Trust.  The event, which will be held at 5 p.m. in Alden Memorial, is free and open to the public.

 Kirchain's lecture, "Making a Sustainable World: Challenges and Opportunities to Realize Sustainable Production," will explore why now is the time to reduce the consumption of non-fuel materials in the United States, which is approaching 10 billion tons per year. According to Kirchain, one of the great challenges of the 21st century will be grappling with the impacts associated with levels of production necessary to satisfy a growing and increasingly wealthy world population.  He believes that solving a problem of such scope will require new ways of thinking and working and says that scientists, engineers, and technology decision-makers are uniquely qualified to meet that challenge.

Kirchain will survey the challenges and opportunities associated with three ways to reduce the footprint of production: selecting more benign materials, dematerializing production, and mining existing waste streams. He will conclude by demonstrating the importance of systems modeling to uncover real sustainable solutions using examples concerning the recycling of two very different materials: light metals and platinum.

WPI launched the "Great Problems Seminars" as a new approach to WPI's first-year experience in 2007, thanks to the generous support of Eric Hahn, a 1980 graduate of WPI and partner of the Inventures Group in Palo Alto, Calif.  The seminars focus on problems in the areas of food, energy, health, and engineering for sustainability – rather than on disciplines or departments or majors. The addition of the Great Problems Seminars provides students with important early exposure to WPI’s project-based curriculum and helps them develop the skills necessary for success in their future project work; 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 WPI's Global Projects Program in 26 cities on five continents. The junior-year project is known as the Interactive Qualifying Project, and it facilitates student tackling societal issues related to science and technology. The senior-year brings the Major Qualifying Project, through which students work in teams to define a problem and then develop novel and creative solutions.