When students fulfill their IQP through one of the project centers on campus, there’s no way of escaping a boost in their critical thinking skills, according to Sue Vernon-Gerstenfeld. “It’s an amazing process to watch…life altering. Many students really get fired up intellectually.”
Vernon-Gerstenfeld, an adjunct professor in the Interdisciplinary & Global Studies Division, is stepping down from her position as director of the Puerto Rico Project Center after 20 years. She will remain at the helm of the Costa Rica Center and continue to teach the preparation course, for which she developed the model.
She emphasizes that although she is stepping away from the center, she has no intention of retiring or leaving WPI. “Retirement would be monumentally boring,” the 72-year-old says, adding that her 86-year-old husband Professor Arthur “Art” Gerstenfeld of the School of Business isn’t going anywhere either.
“What I absolutely love about WPI is the student contact. It’s so invigorating,” she says. “Every year, I think the world is going to be just fine left in their hands. It’s rewarding that I can help them release their best traits.”
Vernon-Gerstenfeld came to WPI in 1987 after receiving undergraduate and master’s degrees at Boston University in social work and a doctorate at Boston College in social planning. Prior to her arrival on campus, she was employed for 20 years in a psychiatric hospital in Boston. She also ran a private practice until a few years ago.
Thinking she needed “new horizons,” she has been able to pursue a lifelong interest in international work that was sparked during travel as a college freshman.
Credited by Dean Richard Vaz as the “inventor” of WPI’s model for off-campus student preparation, she says the course is a crucial element in the student’s experience. It’s the time when teams create a proposal and conduct research to determine what methodology will make a project meet the needs of a sponsor, usually a country’s government or local organization. The finished product is a plan showing “what they’ll do and how they’ll do it,” she explains.
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint memorable projects, Vernon-Gerstenfeld says work over the past decade in Puerto Rico has primarily been environmental in nature. Examples include projects involving cleanup and disposal of organic waste and recycling as well as creation of a GIS study to develop biological corridors for endangered species.
“It’s actually a win-win situation,” she says. “Students bring together the technology and science—keeping in mind ‘what are the social implications of this?’ while sponsors get something tangible that they want in services.”
Costa Rica’s projects have been similar and involve issues like coral reef preservation and biodiversity preservation of the surrounding sea in the Caribbean. Teams have worked with the government to find out how to limit illegal dumping of waste into rivers and have produced a feasibility study to develop a biodiesel fuel factory in a region.
She adds, “we’ve also done a lot of fish things.”
Karen Kosinski ’02 (Biotechnology) remembers one such IQP—on tilapia fish farming—as a “formative experience…. It was the first really long research project I had undertaken and it was the first time that I was hoping to directly impact people with my academic work.” Now an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts, she says that she thinks about the Gerstenfelds’ teaching methods on an almost daily basis and tries to emulate them.
“They gave all of us students tremendous support for our projects while still allowing us to work through intellectual problems on our own,” she notes. “It was a really student-centered process where all of their energy went toward enhancing our learning experiences.”
Although Lauren Mathews will be taking over as director of the Puerto Rico Project Center, Vernon-Gerstenfeld doesn’t expect to have much free time. She’ll continue to co-teach with her husband, a gig that recently took them with 18 students for one week to Israel based on innovation. She also says that her Fulbright Senior Specialist work in Namibia to help foster adoption of team-based learning at a university there was based on what she’s learned at WPI. She’s pleased to guide students as they “permeate cultures in a way that’s far from being a tourist.’’
by Susan Gonsalves, photo by Steven King