By Brian Hitsky
Real world problems are studied and theorized by many college students in the classroom. However, they usually don’t get a chance to put the theories into practice.
But at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), about 40 miles from Boston, Massachusetts, undergraduates experience real world solutions by spending seven or more weeks “in country” planning, researching, reporting and living the issue in one of 40 project sites around the world. Cuenca is one of those sites, the only one in Ecuador.
“Cuenca is a perfect place for a project center,” said Gary Pollice, the Cuenca project center coordinator. “There are so many places here for good research projects that actually have benefits for people.”
Pollice, and his wife Vikki, first came to Cuenca in 2015 after he retired from more than 12 years of teaching at WPI. “I decided it was time to retire from a full-time class load, but keep active with the school as a project center coordinator and part-time professor. My main job is to secure housing for the students, find projects and help with orientation,” he said.
The program that Pollice oversees is known as the Global Projects Program. Projects that our completed in Cuenca are called Interactive Qualifying Projects (IQPs). Students in their junior year bid to qualify for a site to take social science research methods and apply them to a selected project. More than 1,000 students each year take part in the program, with 47 traveling to Cuenca over the past two years. Another 12 are expected in October and 24 more in January, 2019.
Several of the projects that the students have been involved with include implementing sustainable tourism with the local government in Shaglli, Ecuador; investigating agricultural waste solutions along the Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers in coordination with ETPA; increasing quality controls in medical laboratories; studying the feasibility of empowering women in various areas sponsored by the Hearts of Gold Foundation; assessing and advancing community engagement for the Museo de las Conceptas; and supporting community engagement under the direction of the Municipal de Relaciones Externas, which is part of the Cuenca Alcaldía (mayor’s office).
“This not a study abroad program, “said Pollice. “Students learn how the application of technology affects people.” IQP students work with local organizations to tackle real-life problems and challenges where science and technology meet social issues and human needs.
Completing an off-campus project requires a lot of work. Students are expected to put in 40 hours a week, just like they are full-time employees. It combines challenges pertaining to both a real-world professional setting and an academic setting. Students completing projects may also experience culture shock and face these challenges in a new and unfamiliar environment.
Participants foot the entire bill for their own travel, food, housing and miscellaneous costs. WPI recently initiated a scholarship program that helps all students afford to participate in one of the project centers, not just those who can afford it.
Mateo Frare from Westfield, Massachusetts is studying biomedical engineering as a senior at WPI. In January through March he worked with three other classmates under EMOV, the transportation sector of the Ecuadorian government, on a project to promote bicycling as a form of transportation, especially among university students in Cuenca.
“We ultimately concluded that safety concerns, lack of bicycle accessibility, and public perception are the three biggest barriers preventing students from biking,” he said. “We thus designed a map of safe, convenient bike routes that university students can take to bike to various campuses and other points of interest throughout the city.”
Frare was pleased with the experience. “Overall, I enjoyed the months I spent in Ecuador so much and I took a lot away from this project experience. IQP gave me the opportunity to work on solving a social problem with qualitative research methods which were quite different from the quantitative, scientific approaches that I’m used to working with in my field.
“So, not only did the experience broaden my understanding of a new, very different culture, but it also broadened the way I perceive problem-solving as a whole. I loved interacting with my sponsors and locals and practicing my Spanish in the real world. My only dislike would be the time-frame for the project; we had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it all, so I would have loved a bit more time,” he said.
Another student, Olivia (Liv) Verdone, came to Cuenca in earlier this year. “The project was undoubtedly my favorite and most memorable experience in my WPI career. Not only was it filled with many learning experiences, but it was also created many firsts, like leaving the United States for the first time ever.” She is from Malden, Massachusetts, about five miles outside of Boston.
“My team and I worked with ETAPA to prevent a future water deficit imposed by agricultural runoff. In the final stages of our project, we recommended that ETAPA work to improve the relationships they share with landowners living on local watersheds so that there is greater compliance with federal environmental regulations, and greater attendance to agricultural extension programs,” Verdone said.
“From this experience, I learned the importance of putting the stakeholder at the forefront of any design, and how even the greatest of solutions can be ineffective if they are not something the stakeholder wants to implement or adopt. I also learned the importance of communication when working in groups, which I know will carry me far in the workforce,” she concluded.
Pollice said he is very careful about picking projects. “We want projects that are open-ended. We won’t just build a wall,” he said. “They need to be sustaining and ongoing. Students arrive in Cuenca at one level and leave so much more advanced.”
Kelly Mitchell, program manager of the Hearts of Gold Foundation, said that two years ago WPI students were invaluable for developing research, branding and marketing strategies for its women’s empowerment program, Mírame. “They gave us the initial impetus to begin the program that we lacked the resources to do ourselves,” she said.
It took about a year to acquire program funding and now the foundation is progressing rapidly with the growth in the Mírame’s program pilot year.
“This program has a huge future,” remarked Mitchell. “We are excited to welcome students coming in October and continue to grow Mírame’s impact.”
The WPI undergraduates assigned to Hearts of Gold will be working with Kallpa Warnmi, a women’s collective that fights for women’s rights by establishing responsibilities based on the capacities and strengths of its members, through social projects in the area of agriculture, entrepreneurship and education and training. The objective is to find avenues to commercialize their artisanal products and improve the quality of life of women’s families through entrepreneurship.
“This is a huge need in Cuenca,” Mitchell said. “There is so much potential to unite and empower women.”
Pollice recalled the emotionalism that sometimes links students and sponsors at the conclusion of their stay. “At the final presentation in Shaglli, where the students gave their report on the development of ecotourism, a woman raised her hand and told the students ‘you have given us hope.’ Another said, ‘you are now family.’ The students started crying. You can’t teach that in the classroom. This type of program makes students citizens of the world and changes their outlook. It’s a win-win for both the students and the communities and organizations they serve.”