Helping them grow personally and professionally
Professors Seth Tuler and Peter Mathisen provide insight into their distinct roles with the Boston Project Center, and how the experience not only impacts the students, but themselves as well.
Project Center Co-Director
Project Center Co-Director and Advisor
The communication aspects and the immersive nature of the experience encourage the students to take a step back to view the entire project experience, assessing what they gain from the experience. The opportunity for hands-on work on real-world problems provide unique experiences to students in analyzing data, developing solutions to open-ended problems, and communicating results.
The students experience both professional and personal growth. I see the students mature emotionally and grow intellectually over the entirety of the experience because they're confronted with things that they're not usually confronted with as students—how to be flexible, plan their time, talk with professionals, find destinations—experiences that are not typical within the academic classroom environment.
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 Boston?
Seth: First is a course about research methods, project management, and project design, in order for them to think about how other kinds of work, research, and experiences can be brought to bear on helping them understand what their project will be about.Second is project work where the faculty advisor meets with each team separately over the course of the term to discuss the content of their project—applying the ideas, techniques, and tools they’re learning in the course for their particular project. Much of the course is structured around helping them figure out what they don't know and what they need to know—and to start thinking about how to conceptualize in a more abstract way what the project is about.
What's the goal of the preparatory work?
Paul: It prepares students to work effectively as a team, coordinate with the sponsor, and provide relevant background information for a successful experience overall.
How does WPI help the students prepare for their travel?
Seth: All students attend various orientations—many online—to prepare them for their project experience. The sessions focus on safety and health (both in general and for their specific locations) and about travel logistics so that the students feel most secure as to where they're going and what they might encounter.
Is it OK if a project evolves or changes in scope over time?
Seth: When projects change in scope, often in between the preparation phase and the term when they're doing their actual project work, it helps the students learn how to be flexible. That's part of the learning experience—how to emotionally deal with change from a planning and project management point of view. The projects usually evolve because the sponsor’s understanding of the project can change over time.
What’s the biggest challenge you see the students facing?
Seth: At the Boston Project Center, one of the biggest is balancing their working and living environments. It's often hard for them to adjust to the shift from working on their projects during the day in regular business hours and returning "home" in the evenings.
What makes the off-campus IQP experience distinctive for the student?
Seth: The real power of students going off campus to do these projects is that they're working full-time on their projects. They have more responsibility for organizing their time and for defining what they do for the project. Since they are working typical business hours, they're able to give a lot more attention and reflection to what they're doing versus the academic experience on campus.
How do you see the students change over the entirety of the project experience?
Seth: They change both professionally and personally during the projects. Often they become much more confident in themselves, whether in engaging with their sponsor, their faculty advisor, and their teammates, or in their ability to maneuver in a new place. Many become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty as it relates to their project topics, and they learn how to problem solve in unfamiliar situations.Professionally, they begin to understand more of the relationships between technology choices in social, economic, and political contexts that broaden their thinking. They ask questions about what potential users or decision makers need to know and they start to realize there are many perspectives about appropriate courses of action.
How do you define success for the students at the completion of an IQP?
Seth: I measure success if they're able to articulate the complexity of problems and solutions for the sponsor beyond superficial or simple answers—and if they're able to construct an argument and bring to bear other kinds of data that support their recommendations.
Student Interaction with Faculty and Sponsors at a Project Center
How do you interact with the students while at the project center?
Seth: I adopt the role of a mentor with the students. I make suggestions about ways they could look at a problem—perhaps other kinds of topics or information they could look for or people they could talk with. Sometimes students ask, “What should we do next?” and I reply, “What do you think you should do next?”
Are there advantages to working with the students at a project center rather in the traditional classroom setting?
Paul: Students at a project center gain practical real-world experience not captured in a classroom setting. Projects provide opportunities to work as a team, coordinate with a sponsor or client, and address a meaningful problem important to society. Faculty advisors get to know the students much better at a project center than in a classroom. The group environment is more conducive to promoting learning and positive participation.
Do the students work directly with the sponsor or through the faculty?
Seth: They work more directly with the sponsor and I encourage the sponsors to work directly with the students. The sponsors know the issues so the more guidance and feedback they can give the students, the more successful the project will be. I play more of an intermediary role in helping ask questions I feel the students or sponsors aren't asking. In essence, I try to stimulate and broaden the conversations between the students and the sponsors so as to add value to the discussions.
When do the students start to interact with their sponsor?
Seth: The students have opportunities to talk to or meet with their sponsors beginning in the preparatory phase of the project. The overall benefit is to give them time to understand both the problem and the context of the problem that the project grapples with and, perhaps, find some ways they can investigate it. Interacting with the sponsor early on provides them the chance to solicit input for development of their project proposal at the end of the preparatory phase.
About the Boston, Massachusetts Project Center
When did the center open?
Paul: It was founded as a residential project center in 1998; it transitioned to a non-residential program in 2013.
Why is this a good project center location?
Seth: Boston is a really great project center location because it's a dynamic city. It's changed a lot in the last 20 years and it's continuing to change. The sponsors we work with are always dealing with those changes and emerging problems, and so it gives the students a sense of how cities are growing and adapting. The Boston Project Center also offers the students the opportunity to gain experiences in federal, state, and local government, which is often new to the students, and helps them grow as they start to think about their careers and their professional life.From a more logistical standpoint, Boston is also a great project center because it's not too far away from campus. That's great for international students who want to immerse themselves in a major U.S. city, and for other students who'd prefer to commute to a project center due to personal obligations or reasons.
How does commuting to this project center contribute to the distinctive experience for the students?
Paul: Commuting is something many of us have to do throughout our careers. Boston Project Center students gain experience getting to and from their workplaces and learning how to manage their time. The teams must plan out their days carefully, find ways to make the best use of their time together, and work to meet the sponsor’s needs.
About WPI’s Project-Based Approach and the Distinctive Role of the Project Advisor
What makes the off-campus project-based experience at WPI different from a typical study abroad program elsewhere?
Seth: Unlike program participants at other universities, WPI students aren't studying in a classroom. They're working for government agencies or nongovernmental organizations in a workplace environment. It's also different than an internship in that the students are not being told what to do. They have to figure out what they're doing—it's really their project.
What is the role of the faculty advisor at a project center?
Seth: My primary role as an advisor is to help the students figure out how to work with ambiguity, as often this is the first time they've been doing something, perhaps in their lives, where things aren’t completely clear. A lot of the students are uncomfortable with that so I help them learn what to do when they're faced with uncomfortable situations.I also feel that my role as an advisor is to help the students grow and mature in how they work with others and how they see themselves in a work environment—to help them understand that their role is not just to make a sponsor happy and to tell the sponsor what the sponsor wants to know, but to provide honest assessments and insights about what they have learned.
What's the difference between a traditional academic advisor and a project center advisor?
Paul: A traditional advisor provides guidance to help students determine an academic program that will meet his/her career and personal goals. A project advisor provides advice and guidance to help the student learn the best approaches and appropriate critical thinking skills for succeeding in a project. The project advisor is directly engaged in the teaching/learning process.
What do you find rewarding about the experience as a project advisor?
Paul: Advising projects and working with the student teams is exciting. It's always nice to see how students achieve more than they expected, and how they're proud of their accomplishments.