WPI launched the “Great Problems Seminars” in 2007 as a new approach to engaging first-year students with the critical problems of our day, thanks to the generous support of Eric Hahn, a 1980 graduate of WPI and partner of the Inventures Group in Palo Alto, Calif. The seminars focus on problems in the areas of food, energy, health, and engineering for sustainability – rather than on disciplines or departments or majors. The addition of the Great Problems Seminars provides students with important early exposure to WPI’s project-based curriculum and helps them develop the skills necessary for success in their future project work; as a requirement for graduation from WPI, students must complete two projects in addition to their course work. Undertaken in the junior and senior years, these projects provide WPI students with opportunities to apply classroom and lab-acquired knowledge to solve real-world problems. Student projects can occur either on or off campus, and often take place at sites that are facilitated by WPI’s Global Projects Program in 26 cities on five continents.
Last August, WPI welcomed Martin Burt, a pioneer in applying entrepreneurship to address chronic poverty, to kick off the fifth year of the Great Problems Seminar. He is the founder and CEO of Fundación Paraguay, a 25-year old NGO, and is known for having developed one of the world’s first financially self-sufficient agricultural and tourism schools for the rural poor. Burt is also a co-founder of Teach a Man to Fish, a global network based in London that is partnering with more than 50 organizations from 27 countries to establish self-sufficient schools, mostly in rural areas. His activities with the World Economic Forum include participation on the Education Global Agenda Council and membership in the Latin American Entrepreneurship Group.
Burt, an international rural entrepreneur expert, delivered a talk titled “Social Entrepreneurship as an Opportunity for Change,” about how promotion of entrepreneurship and self-help can aid in the elimination of poverty around the world. WPI students Anna Chase, Matt Connolly and Tayiesha Jackson will also recounted how they brought their Great Problems Seminar projects to fruition by going to Malawa, Kenya.
As part of the two-course introduction to university-level research and project work, first year students present their work at the annual Great Problems Seminars Project Presentation. This year, 250 students, comprising 55 teams, presented their projects while judges, faculty, staff, and spectators perused each poster, questioned the team members, and discussed at length the topic of their research, and the potential applications of their work.
The themes focused on issues of current global importance: “Feed the World” looks at what can be done to ensure that we have sufficient food for all in the world; “Power the World” focuses on various forms of energy and policies that shape use; “Heal the World” starts with the biology of infectious disease and moves on to the management of disease control; and “Grand Challenges” looks at several of the major challenges facing engineering in the 21st Century: energy, transportation, food distribution, housing, recycling, and health care. The members of each team were eager to discuss their topics, demonstrate inventions, and share the findings of the research they conducted. Sample titles of some of the projects: “Repair with Hair” explained how hair mats are being used to clean up oil spills. (Who knew that one pound of hair could absorb one quart of oil in one minute?); “Russian Icons: Improving the Energy Efficiency of a Local Museum,” in which the team members visited the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., to assess the energy efficiency of the building, measure the amount of carbon dioxide and humidity in the air, to make sure the artifacts were kept at constant temperature and humidity levels; and “Aluminating Waste,” which researched the number of tons of aluminum that are currently in landfills could have been recycled.
This year’s winners include:
Feed the World
Best Poster (a tie)
More than a Mirage: Oasis in the Desert
by Mercedes Brown, Molly Homchenko, Danielle Riccardi and Brianna Sheldon
More to Your Door
by John Devries, Matt Foley, Elizabeth Hennessey, Matt Janiga and Marley Kapsimalis
Preventing Nitrogen Runoff
by Matt Deptula, Tom Kostelak, Chris Long, Kirk Murphy and Armagan Sezer
Sewage Gone Green
by Ken Angeliu, Eimy Bonilla, Conor Geary and Matt Roy
Manure to Methane: Making Sure No Waste Goes to Waste
by Victor Agudelo, Nick Deraney, Mike Enko and RJ Mazurkiewicz
Heal the World
Cleanliness and Sanitation in Morgan Dining Hall
by Anna Civitarese, Tyler Hickey, Tristan Richardson, Taryn Roy and Emily Tierney
Smoking at WPI
by John Amante, Kelsey Krupp, Antionette Pacifico, Archit Parmanand and Patrick Thomas
Power the World
Economic Feasibility of Geothermal Heat Pumps in New England
by Bernadette Cannon, Tyler Ewing, Norman Harris and Samuel Teatum
by Tianyu Li, Jacob Manning, Benjamin Morse and Benjamin Rude