Today the Classroom, Tomorrow the World

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, engineering students come out of the lab to focus on the human impact of their new projects worldwide

THE need to ``think globally'' is obvious for would-be diplomats and corporate managers. But what about aspiring engineers? Can't they simply bury themselves in their specifications and formulas?

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a 129-year-old school tucked in a tree-lined neighborhood of Massachusetts's second-largest city, decided a couple of decades ago that its traditional engineering curriculum was too confining. It developed a project-based program of study that forced students to apply their classroom learning to real-world problems - and, just as importantly, to understand how technology affects the wider society.

Global awareness

That approach has been expanded in recent years through what the school calls its Global Perspectives Program. The program embraces the projects' requirements, which can now be fulfilled at 18 sites around the world, as well as an effort to bring an awareness of cultural diversity to all aspects of campus life.

Teams of students are sent abroad following preparatory work at Worcester, which can include intensive language training. Project subjects are derived in collaboration with local governmental agencies or private groups at the overseas locations. Typically, the projects entail work that might normally be taken on by trained professionals.

The value of this program for students whose working lives will be spent in electrical, chemical, or biomedical laboratories is summed up by Stephen Weininger, a WPI faculty member who has been an on-site adviser to students completing their projects abroad: ``What they get out of it is the understanding that you can't consider technological problems in isolation.... You have to have an understanding of what's going on on the ground.''

``Having US-educated engineers work on projects with people from other cultures'' will pay off both for the students and their future employers, says Ronald Zarrella, president of Bausch & Lomb Inc., a large manufacturer of optical equipment. Mr. Zarrella is an alumnus and trustee of WPI. The development of new products often draws on talents and manufacturing skills from a number of countries, he says.

He calls WPI's program ``pretty unique'' in preparing engineers and technicians for that kind of collaborative work.

Some benefits have little to do with technology. Students often return from their ``global'' assignment with a greater appreciation of pluralism, says Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld, who directs WPI project centers in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. ``It makes them a little less intolerant of differences,'' she says.

Professor Weininger recalls his experience working with a team of students in Bangkok. Their project involved a local program for recycling discarded water jugs into consumer goods, such as plastic outdoor furniture. The aim was to recommend what kinds of modern technology might make the program more effective.

But their tracking of a jug's journey from water vessel to chair brought the students into contact with the poor who relied on the scant money earned by collecting and redeeming the containers. In this instance, says Mr. Weininger, ``More automation would have a harmful social impact.''

Another WPI project team in Bangkok was assigned to produce a documentary video portraying the work of the Duang Prateep Foundation, which is committed to helping the city's poorest slum dwellers.

Michele Suszko, a biomedical engineering major, says the conditions she and her colleagues witnessed there were ``mind-boggling.'' But ``the people of the foundation were awesome,'' she adds. ``We became like a family.''

Meeting highly motivated people from other cultures is another pay-off from the program, says Bland Addison, director of the project center in Venice, Italy.

``Our young people worked with some of the finest leaders in the city,'' he says.

Contacts ranged from top art conservators to officials in the Venetian Green Party. They were ``excellent models in terms of expertise, warmth, and maturity,'' says Professor Addison.

Popular program

Maria Dilanco, a native of Guam who chose WPI because of its emphasis on projects instead of classroom theory and because of its overseas program, describes weeks spent exploring Venice with a member of the city's Archeo Club in search of public works of art -

statuary or family coats of arms, for instance - that needed restoration. Their guide spoke little English, but their ability to communicate in Italian grew steadily. Veterans of the Venice program at WPI regularly get together in sessions where only Italian is spoken, Ms. Dilanco says.

She also remembers the satisfaction of knowing that the result of the project - a detailed list of deteriorating monuments - ``was certainly going to be used.''

Another participant in the Venice project, Jim Kilgallon, spent his seven weeks there sifting through United Nations research data on pollution in the city's lagoon.

The work culminated in a report that recommended ways of reducing the influx of contaminants like heavy metals. His experience in Venice nudged Mr. Kilgallon to reconsider his own options. ``When you come down to it,'' he says, ``you have to tell people what to do'' to control pollution. That, he thinks, means the study of law when he's completed his current work in mechanical engineering.

Matters of law also concerned Andrew Cox, whose project took him to New Zealand to evaluate that country's new building code. The code is ``performance-based,'' says Mr. Cox, which means builders are required to attain certain safety objectives, but the government doesn't specify the methods or materials to be used in meeting those objectives. It's a system that ``really opens doors for economic advancement,'' says Cox. He found, however, that many people in the construction industry there didn't understand the new approach. The 200-page report his team wrote emphasized the ``educational task'' of explaining the code to industry.

Such projects teach teamwork and the blending of disciplines, along with appreciation for other cultures, says Hossein Hakim, WPI's global program officer.

Student demand has driven the program's expansion from one project center in 1974 to the current 18 sites in 15 countries, Professor Hakim says. About one-third of the school's 2,800 students will complete some portion of their project requirements distant from the campus. Most will go overseas, though project sites include Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

It is a particular point of pride, says Hakim, that a relatively small institution like WPI has 140 of the US total of about 1,000 engineering students currently studying abroad.

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