September 08, 2009

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WPI Announces New Santa Fe Project Center

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has announced that it is launching a new Project Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where future student teams will be able to pursue in-depth research in water management, urban planning, and renewable energy; and work closely with Native American groups. The Santa Fe site now brings WPI's Global Project Center total to 26, allowing students more choices, and more perspective, to research solutions to real-world problems.   Beginning in spring 2011, approximately 24 to 28 WPI students will be able to start exploring Santa Fe each year as part of WPI's Global Projects Program.

According to the Project Center's director, WPI Professor Fabio Carrera, Santa Fe is a cosmopolitan and eclectic environment that provides challenging opportunities for students, especially for projects that combine science and art, and projects that apply "complexity theory" to community issues. Complexity theory has taken root in Santa Fe because of its proximity of Los Alamos National Lab and because of it is home to the world-renowned Santa Fe Institute (SFI), founded by George Cowan, a member of WPI's Class of 1941.  In addition, the non-profit Santa Fe Complex (SFx) was recently created with the mission of combining art and science in interdisciplinary education, and in the development of innovative technologies that address real-world problems and create economic opportunities for the community.  The new WPI Santa Fe Project Center has established a solid collaboration with SFx, and most of the student projects will be hosted in SFx' refurbished warehouse in downtown Santa Fe.

"Santa Fe is an ideal Project Center location," said Professor Carrera. "Being the oldest state capital in the United States, the city is steeped in history and represents a unique cultural environment with significant Native American connections; it is as exotic as any of our foreign destinations. It's also a hotbed of cutting-edge technology, with a thriving art community, where science and culture comingle to produce a fertile project environment for our students. 

"We are very fortunate to have established a relationship with the Santa Fe Complex, which is at the forefront of a creative revolution that holds great potential for breakthrough applications in the management of water, energy, and urban development," Carrera continued. "Despite its worldwide reputation, Santa Fe is an intimate, human-scale city, where WPI teams will be able to make tangible contributions with broad repercussions for the reputation of our university."

Given the inter-ethnic history of this part of the United States, WPI has established research collaborations with local Native American institutions on water conservation, renewable energy, and urban planning, and on other important environmental, cultural, and societal issues.  Santa Fe is still growing and experiencing challenges when it comes to urban planning and design. WPI has explored how projects could be conducted through the SFx to facilitate public discussions around impacts of new developments, especially on traffic and water.  Water is a scarce resource in the Southwest, and WPI's meetings with water management officials at the local, state, and federal levels confirmed that this area would be rich for student project opportunities.

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 Global Projects Program, which are now located in 26 cities on five continents. The junior-year project is known as the Interactive Qualifying Project, and it 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, through which students work in teams to define a problem and then develop novel and creative solutions.

A team of WPI students researched for their IQP the feasibility of establishing a Project Center in America's southwest, and this IQP led to the site's approval by WPI officials. In addition to deeming the city feasible for a Project Center, the students – 2009 graduate Christopher Harlow of Millis, Mass.; seniors Sam Drogin of Sea Bright, N.J.; Obadiah Kopchak of Cordova, Alaska; Dan Schick of Naugatuck, Conn.; and David Wiig of Morris, Conn.; and junior Andrew Tremblay of Hingham, Mass. – also concluded that engaging with Native Americans on environmental issues would constitute another attraction for future WPI students. To that end, WPI has submitted a grant proposal to NASA in collaboration with the Indian American Institute of Arts for projects to extract climate change information from 50-year-old stereo photographs in its Yffe Kimball collection. As well, a grant proposal was submitted to the Santa Fe Indian School, which will also participate in the NASA grant, and has collaborated in the past with the SFx on Native American issues.

In addition to finding ideas for future projects and organizations to sponsor the research, as well as developing a plan to market the site to prospective students, the Santa Fe IQP team also probed housing, transportation, and other areas of interest for future Project Center students. Professor Carrera and a small contingent of students will travel next year to Santa Fe to lay the groundwork for the center.

Students will be able to learn more about the Santa Fe Project Center, as well as other Project Centers and research opportunities, on Sept. 15, 2009, as the IGSD will host the annual Global Opportunities Fair from 4 to 6 p.m. that day in the Campus Center Odeum. The fair will showcase the university's Project Centers and projects available for students to pursue.

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. Through participation at Project Centers around the world, all WPI undergraduates gain project-based experience in tackling problems that lie at the interface of science, technology, social issues, and human needs.  In fact, WPI requires all students to research and address challenges that affect people and communities at home and all over the world. 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.