April 17, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic gained steam this spring, upending WPI’s global travel, the project directors and advisors for the Bucharest, Romania Project Center went into action, reimagining a global, project-based learning experience by immersing students in the sights, smells, and rich history of Romania without actually stepping on its soil.

“Our original hopes of taking our students to museums, churches, movies, and to meet people from Romania who live in the surrounding areas were quickly shattered,” said project co-director and Associate Teaching Professor Rodica Neamtu, computer science. “Thus, we had to become creative. We committed to give our cohort as much exposure to people from Romania, and to Romanian history, art, culture and spirit as Zoom calls would allow.”

Creative is an understatement

In addition to working on their Interactive Qualifying Projects (IQP) focusing on promoting eco-tourism, raising awareness on pollen allergies, saving urban green spaces, redesigning inter-generational learning centers, and promoting collaborations through the American Chamber of Commerce in Romania, students have sampled the country’s signature dishes, and hosted special guests via teleconferencing to discuss history, geography, art, and film. “We are constantly working to keep the teams focused and enthusiastic,” Neamtu said.

On March 30, the team hosted its first so-called Virtual Romania Quest event, featuring Dan Dimancescu, honorary consul of Romania in Boston. Students engaged in educational team-building exercises prior to the event. More recently, Corina Suteu, former minister of culture of Romania, teleconferenced with the team, discussing Romanian art since the fall of Communism. Both events featured students outlining their ongoing IQP projects to each of the guest speakers. On another occasion, each of the students was asked to prepare a Romanian dish for lunch to “share” via teleconference.

“I have always been a firm believer that our global projects program has a positive impact on our students and on local communities around the world. Thus, I wanted to contribute to expanding and diversifying WPI’s footprint and to providing the opportunity for more students to have this experience,” said project co-director and Vice Provost for Research Bogdan Vernescu, who helped launch this new project center with its first cohort of students this year.  “At the same time during the three decades after the fall of the communist regime, Romania has made progress in its transition to democracy, to a free market economy, to institutionalizing civil and human rights and building its civil society. Its socio-economic status, still in transition, can provide students with an interesting perspective, and many of the relatively young organizations can benefit from our students’ contributions.”

“I was amazed at how quickly these young WPI students adapted to the fact we had to do business in Romania virtually...They plunged right into their work and have done quality work under difficult circumstances.”  - Bland Addison, associate professor, Humanities & Arts

Associate Professor Bland Addison, Humanities and Arts, and advisor to the team, was impressed by the students’ attitudes upon hearing of the revised IQP plan. “I was amazed at how quickly these young WPI students adapted to the fact we had to do business in Romania virtually,” he said. “It was like they were saying: ‘Gee, we are crushed. We cannot travel to Romania this spring, but that's the reality and so let's get on with it using all we know about electronic means of communicating and getting business done at a distance.’ No moping around for them. They plunged right into their work and have done quality work under difficult circumstances.”  

Determination, Resiliency Keep Projects Moving Forward

The Bucharest, Romania IQP students are just one example of how WPI students and faculty are all pivoting to remote teamwork––and remote project work. "Students have more capacity to be resilient than they probably realize. Working under an emergency situation and pivoting, that is a great lesson to learn," says assistant professor Sarah Stanlick. Read more. 

Alexa Eves '21, mechanical engineering, credited Addison, Vernescu, and Neamtu for devising “wonderful programs” so the team would be immersed in Romanian culture. “On top of that, they worked diligently with our collaborators in Romania to assure that we would be able to continue our projects with only slight alteration,” she said. “I will say it has been a learning experience, trying to alter our thinking and the way we learn and work to complete our projects. My team and I have hit challenges that we probably wouldn’t have faced if we were running our project in Romania, but that has given us more perspective and helped us develop problem-solving skills even in the toughest of times.”

Selina Spry '21, robotics engineering, said meeting via teleconference with the honorary consul of Romania in Boston, and former minister of culture, enhanced her appreciation for the country. “Since both of these people are very knowledgeable about Romanian history and culture, they were able to provide insight into topics that we would not have otherwise learned in any readings,” she said.

As for future events, on April 20 the team will learn about the early origins of the Romanian people and culture with guest Gabriel Popian, sculptor and professional art/architectural conservator, who was born in Romania. Then, on April 27 the team will hear Romanian architect Theodor Harasim discuss Romanian architecture and several of the buildings and monuments the students would have seen and visited.  The last event—after watching several recent Romanian movies describing the transition from Communism—will be a discussion with Andrei Ujica, an internationally acclaimed Romanian screenwriter and director.

-By Lauren Borsa Curran

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