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

Article excerpt

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. …


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