WPI Launches the Institute of Science and Technology for Development (InSTeD), an Inclusive Hub for Transdisciplinary Design and Research in STEM and Social Sciences
WPI professors and students will tell you they’re here to learn, conduct research, and advance their fields while also helping to make the world a better place. To help bring those goals and opportunities together, the university has formalized the Institute of Science and Technology for Development (InSTeD). This new institute brings WPI’s expertise in collaboration and project-based learning to faculty teams, and creates hubs where social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers can work together—and with partners around the world—to solve problems through the theoretical aspects of their work and with real-world applications. InSTeD’s transdisciplinary approach to design and research takes interdisciplinary collaborations to the next level.
“InSTeD brings together faculty, affiliated scholars, community partners, and students with different forms of knowledge to help tackle global problems through cross-cutting research and co-designed solutions—community by community,” says Social Science & Policy Professor Rob Krueger, who helped establish InSTeD with Provost and Senior Vice President Wole Soboyejo and Dean of Arts and Sciences Jean King. “While interdisciplinary projects combine two or more academic disciplines into one activity, a transdisciplinary approach requires real appreciation of different “ways of knowing”, curiosity, critical and deep listening, empathy, and openness to learning from each other. This is an important distinction because solving big problems in ways that respect social justice, sustainability, and humanity requires a more holistic approach.”
“InSTeD advances WPI’s central tenets of project-based learning and problem-solving on a global scale, while also addressing issues of social justice and sustainability,” says Soboyejo. “The institute has ambitious goals of training the next generation of scholars and researchers through its collaborative approach to help create innovative solutions to challenges around the world.”
King describes InSTeD as an innovation hub that relies on the ideal mix of creativity, curiosity, community, and connectivity. "We are stronger, more innovative, and impactful together,” she says. “The world needs us to step up and embrace the gifts we have to arrive at more inclusive solutions for the global family.”
As director of the Ghana Project Center, Krueger, along with his team and community members in the Dwenase region of Ghana, co-created micro-flush composting toilets, helping to solve the issue of a lack of access to working toilets. The technology is now being used in Ethiopia. WPI has also helped develop opportunities in Ethiopia for “maker agents”—people who have knowledge of the business and supply chain for improving sanitation and hygiene. And in Mozambique, Krueger and Associate Professor Steven Van Dessel, along with Professor Patricío Langa of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, co-designed an eco-campus with students from both universities and the community of Macaneta that will explore ecological questions related to climate change and sea-level rise.
Krueger views people in the communities where he conducts his research to be true partners, with the concept of generative justice as an underlying theme—where knowledge isn’t a one-way street, but occurs through work with, and in, the community. He sums up generative justice with the adage “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
Beyond Africa, InSTeD’s work will focus on the Global South, including Latin America. WPI Professor Laureen Elgert, head of the Department of Integrative & Global Studies (DIGS), is the Institute’s Latin America Coordinator.
“We need to work in a mode that’s transdisciplinary and transregional to find solutions to problems at both the community and global levels,” says Elgert. “This gives researchers the opportunity to recast what we’re doing through new partnerships and broaden our horizons through collaboration—developing and engaging in two-way dialogues, and opening the channels of communication to create an equitable back-and-forth exchange.”
Though InSTeD was only recently launched, Elgert’s work with the Institute has already brought her into contact with other faculty members with whom she may never have met. Those meetings are now opening possibilities for future collaborations. She says she’s approaching these new interactions with an open mind, much in the same way she teaches her students to “ask first, and then answer questions later.”
It’s a method Krueger also preaches, saying he works with students on how to practice what he calls “un-learning.” While that may seem like an unusual concept for a research institution, it’s really about leaving assumptions behind and encouraging students to “sit back and take in what’s going on around them” he says.
InSTeD’s goals are consistent with the mission of The Global School, founded at WPI in 2020. Its collaborative and transdisciplinary approach spans all four schools at WPI— the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, The Business School, and The Global School— and seeks to engage faculty and students from the entire university.
Dean of The Global School Mimi Sheller notes that “the increasing complexity and diversity of global challenges in health, energy, food, water, sustainable ecosystems, and resilient economies calls for new convergent interdisciplinary approaches. But it also calls for greater multicultural competency, transdisciplinary thinking, and attention to ethical engagement with global partners.” InSTeD will not only support WPI’s mission of global project-based learning, Sheller observes, but also “offers a distinctive way of embedding horizontal teamwork and global cooperation into the training of a new generation of diverse STEM students.”
Overall, InSTeD complements the very heart of a WPI education and supports one of the university’s central goals in its new Strategic Plan: creating technological humanists. Krueger says, “InSteD aims to cultivate a cadre of problem solvers and innovators, and reframe the goals of science and engineering in development, while promoting equity and social justice.”
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