Helping them succeed
Seeing students achieve things they didn’t think possible is most meaningful for Frederick Bianchi, Bar Harbor Project Center director and advisor. He shares information on his role as a faculty advisor, his view of the student experience, and the power of WPI’s project-based approach.
Project Center Director and Advisor
Bar Harbor, Maine
WPI has many project centers around the world—what's common among all the project centers is the immersive, transformative experience that often changes the students’ lives. For the Bar Harbor Project Center, the students are drawn to the same immersive and transformative experience they would have at any other center in the world—and to many of the students, the national park is unknown to them.
The Student Experience Over the Life of an Interactive Qualifying Project
What preparatory work do the students do for their project prior to traveling to Bar Harbor?
Fred: Students go through a lot of preparation. They bring everything to bear to start solving the problem they'll be working on. They take a prep course and complete a pre-qualifying project (PQP) during the term prior to traveling to the site. The ID2050 course focuses on some of the techniques of doing research, how to write the paper, and how to think more globally and long term about the project. During the PQP preparation, the students better understand what their role is going to be and they work specifically with their team on their project in an effort to hit the ground running when they arrive.
How does WPI help the students prepare for their travel?
Fred: Prior to coming to Bar Harbor or any project center, WPI does a lot in terms of prepping the students relative to safety, how to maneuver through a culture, and what to do in case there's an emergency. During the term before traveling to the project center, the students are introduced to the culture of Bar Harbor—in particular, the history of Acadia National Park. There are lots of things we try to get across to the students because it's going to help them understand their project better and give them some more insight into what's going on in the park. One of the biggest transformations I observe is once a student is in Bar Harbor, the environment comes into play. Prior to being here, it's just a project. But as soon as they climb to a summit, get on a boat, go to a lake, become lost on a hike, they start to realize there's a lot to learn about the environment. This is when the project really starts to take shape.
Is it ok if a project evolves or changes in scope over time?
Fred:If projects begin to deviate from the original concept, it's almost always a good sign because it shows some type of growth. A key reason is the dynamics created from the students' working with the park staff, many of whom have 40+ years of park experience and are extremely dedicated to the work they do. Students are often struck by their sponsor’s commitment—and that changes the project. Sometimes a ranger will say something and a light bulb goes off in a student's thoughts and then there's a new idea and the ranger agrees with that idea and all of a sudden the project starts to evolve. That kind of flexibility is one of the primary characteristics of working in a group on a project in Acadia National Park.
What's the biggest challenge you see the students facing?
Fred: One of the biggest challenges relates to working in a team. Our culture teaches us that we are very individualistic, but when you work as a team, somebody else may have a different vision of the world. Others may have a different sensibility aesthetically—something about art—or somebody may know a little more about technology. The students who are really successful in this environment must have some humility as to how much they know so they can grow that knowledge.
What makes the off-campus IQP experience distinctive for the student?
Fred: In most cases, they spend a lot of time working on their projects. That can be evaluated—that can be quantified as there's a metric we look at. The thing that we can't quantify is the experience they're having off campus. Sometimes, that manifests itself easily, but oftentimes it doesn't; a deeper transformation goes on. That's what inspires students over the long run. That's what sticks with them. A few years down the road, many forget exactly what their project was, but they don't forget what changed them during that time. It's hard to put a number on that; it's hard to put a metric on that—but it definitely is there.
How do you see the students change over the entirety of the project experience?
Fred: One of the biggest impacts on students when they come to Bar Harbor, or to any project center, is the level of achievement they experience. That translates to a level of confidence. It happens from working in a group. This is the essence of the whole WPI experience—students working in interdisciplinary teams. If team members include biology, electrical engineering, and music majors, the potential for growing and experiencing things beyond each individual person's experience is very high. The whole interaction within the interdisciplinary group moves students forward in terms of their confidence. I've heard so many students reflect on the experience by saying, "I accomplished things that I didn't think I could do."
How do you define success for the students at the completion of an IQP?
Fred: It's defined in many different ways. Certainly there's a way to quantify what the student have done while off campus—how they've interacted as a group, the many benchmarks they've had to achieve, etc. But there's a component that's more difficult to value—how much a student has grown personally. A lot of academic programs shy away from that kind of evaluation but that's the kind I look for because I see it as being equally as important to the project experience itself. It's about where they've started and where they end. That's the growth I like to see.
Do you think students continue to reflect on their IQP experience down the road?
Fred: The project experience manifests itself in many different ways with students. In particular, it's the first time in their academic experience that they're working exclusively on a project in a group atmosphere over an extended period of time. That has a transforming effect on students. When you put two people together, three people together, four people together, you have a much larger domain and experience to draw upon. When that happens, a certain chemistry begins with the students and that transformation is what effects students the most. They go on in their careers and in their lives and they use that information, they use that experience, and occasionally they reflect to where it all began and how important it was.
How often do former students contact you to reflect on their experience?
Fred: Students contact me frequently—that's the great part about my role as a project advisor. Some students who were at Bar Harbor six years ago will reach out to let me know what they are doing now and express that they often think back on their experience in Bar Harbor and the skills they gained there.
Student Interaction with Faculty and Sponsors at a Project Center
How do you interact with the students while at the project center?
Fred: Once I arrive on site with the students in Bar Harbor, we have a lot of contact time. Usually it's in weekly meetings and also with the local project sponsor from Acadia National Park. I also go out in the field and work with them and I'm available to work with them at any time during that period as needed. There could be as much contact time as a student group needs but, ultimately, the students are driving the project. They develop their own ideas and I encourage them to solve their own problems.
How different is working with students at a project center vs. in the traditional classroom setting?
Fred: Because the off-campus project is self-driven, the students have to be motivated; they have to make many decisions on their own while working in a team. They also need to be able to plan ahead and have a vision and strategy for the goals of the project. I see a completely different transformation happening at a project center vs. in a classroom. The students at a project center are being impacted not only by the project work, but by the immersive and cultural environment.
Do the students work directly with the sponsor or through the faculty?
Fred: The Bar Harbor students work directly with the sponsors. In most cases, as the advisor I'm in the loop, but the students get to a point where they understand the project enough and the issues they're dealing with that they obtain a certain confidence level where they are able to navigate their own communication. Ultimately, they work more as consultants and professional advisors to the park and not as students.
When do the students start to interact with their sponsor?
Fred: Prior to going to Bar Harbor, the students are in contact with the people that they're going to be working with—in Bar Harbor it's primarily the Acadia National Park and rangers and specialists in various areas. There's a lot of back and forth in written communication and via skype phone calls, so by the time the students arrive, they feel that they already know the sponsor. In most cases, that correspondence is really inspiring and uplifting and the students feel well prepared.
About the Bar Harbor, Maine Project Center
What is the history of the project center and the sponsor relationship with Acadia National Park?
Fred: The first year we were here (2012) we had nine students—in 2017 we had 20— so there has been a strong, continuous growth in the program. I attribute that growth to word of mouth. The students like it here and they tell their fellow students about it. When we originally came to Bar Harbor, we didn't have any collaboration or association with Acadia National Park, so the initial projects were not sponsored by the park. Over that first year we reached out to contacts at the park and shared the story of WPI—what our project-based learning curriculum is all about, and it didn't take long until we convinced them to support this program. Our successful program is where it is now because of the collaboration of the national park and what its staff members bring to this project center.
Why is Bar Harbor a good project center location?
Fred: It's a good location for a number of reasons that might seem obvious. Some that aren't so obvious are what happens once the students get here. It's the accumulation of interactions with the people in that park—not just the tourists who enjoy the park and the people the park belongs to, but the people who manage the park—the Acadia Rangers and all the management staff we work with.
One thing sustained throughout time is the dedication of these people at the park—I believe the students pick up on that immediately. They see they're not just doing something that becomes a project that sits somewhere on a shelf in a library; they'll come back years from now and they'll see that the work they did actually changed the park. And it's leading to further change down the road. That's a great takeaway from any project center.
About WPI’s Project-Based Approach and the Distinctive Role of the Project Advisor
What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of WPI's project-based learning approach to education?
Fred: It has many characteristics to it. The most positive is it acknowledges that diversified learning is how things should be functioning. The idea that one person has the solution to problems is outdated. You need to take a problem and view and tackle it from many different angles—not just from one area of expertise. Working in interdisciplinary teams allows for more innovation and more risk taking, which increases the opportunity for better results.
What is the role of faculty advisor at a project center?
Fred: The advisor is responsible for many things. First is preparing the students prior to arriving at the center so they understand all the dimensions of the project and they have all the resources to tackle the problem. When the students are actually on the ground at the center, the advisor oversees the plan they've put together, steers them in the right direction, and guides them in the execution of their plan.
What do you personally get out of the experience of a project advisor?
Fred: The most meaningful thing to me as a project advisor is to see how students are transformed throughout the entire project period. Everybody deals with the experience differently but, overall, I often know during the course of the project that things are happening and that the students are growing and it's up to me to manage that growth. I take a lot of pride when I see that happening because it's a growth I don't often see in the classroom just because of the logistics of day-to-day classroom teaching. What I enjoy the most is when students come back to me two or three years down the road and shares the impact of their experience. Overall project advising is a much more rewarding experience for me than teaching in a classroom setting.