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
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
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