[IQP] Investigating the Feasibility of a WPI Project Center in Iceland

Jacob Dupuis
Austin Hartshorn
Alissa Ostapenko
Karitta Zellerbach

Abstract: To provide global education to more undergraduates, Worcester Polytechnic Institute has been expanding the Global Projects Program by opening project centers in new locations. The goal of our project was to investigate the feasibility of establishing a WPI project center in Iceland. Through interviews with WPI faculty, we outlined the characteristics of a successful project center. This information guided our work as we interacted with potential project partners and evaluated housing, transportation, and living expenses as WPI students in Iceland. We met with ten organizations interested in student projects and gave recommendations for future logistic arrangements, providing a foundation for establishing the  Iceland Project Center.

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Executive Summary

Worcester Polytechnic Institute established its project-based curriculum in 1972 based on the idea of “theory and practice”. Since then, all undergraduates have to complete two major projects, the interdisciplinary Interactive Qualifying Project and the capstone Major Qualifying Project. These projects challenge student teams to creatively approach real-world questions, building their technical and social skills. Although students can complete these projects on campus, the projects “lend themselves readily to working with external organizations” (Vaz from Downey and Beddoes, 2011). Recognizing the value of global education, WPI enables students to complete projects at one of over 40 project centers around the world. At these centers, students work closely with organizations and communities in a new, “authentic” environment, developing logistical and professional integration skills through their project experiences (Sakulich & Elgert, 2017).
WPI aims to open “more than 400 new seats for IQPs, and 12 new project centers by the 2018-2019 academic year” to expand program capacity (“Strategic Plan”, 2016). Given its active efforts in environmental conservation, its booming tourism industry, and its commitment to cultural preservation, Iceland is a potential location for a new project center, offering IQP opportunities related to Technology and Environment, Energy and Resources, and Historic and Artistic Preservation Technology.

Iceland has many organizations involved in addressing a range of environmental concerns, including soil quality and erosion, plastic pollution in the ocean, and glacial melting. Moreover, tourism is Iceland’s leading industry. Although tourism helps the Icelandic economy, it also presents challenges, such as mitigating tourism congestion, improving infrastructure, and encouraging tourism outside the capital and southern regions (Fox, 2018). Finally, Iceland is dedicated to preserving its rich history, art, and literature and making it accessible to the community and to tourists. Not only does Iceland present interesting project opportunities for WPI students, but it also has an active arts and music scene and offers many recreational activities. This allows students to immerse themselves in Icelandic culture and engage in an academically challenging project environment. Thus, Iceland is a compelling project center location to explore.

Project Goals and Objectives
The goal of our project was to investigate the potential of developing a project center in Iceland. Our work in assessing the “risks and rewards” of pursuing a project site in Iceland was critical for the university to make the final “Go/No Go” decision of establishing the center (Hofstrand, 2009). In our investigation, we considered the distinct needs of the primary stakeholder groups, namely the students and faculty of the WPI community. We also considered the learning outcomes for students and the benefit of student projects for potential partnering organizations in Iceland.

We structured the project goals around these stakeholder groups and achieved our goal through four main objectives:
Objective 1: Understand the Key Characteristics of a WPI Project Center.
We conducted interviews with project center directors to understand how a successful project center operates. These included logistical questions pertaining to student housing accommodations, transportation, and working conditions. Most importantly, we learned what to expect from sponsors for student projects and how to interview potential sponsors.

Objective 2: Create and document a network of potential sponsors for student projects.
We researched organizations that could benefit from project partnering and compiled them into a list. We contacted over 67 organizations in the Greater Reykjavik area. Ten of them agreed to meet for interviews. We presented the educational mission of an IQP, provided examples of past IQP reports, and learned more about the organizations.

Objective 3: Evaluate available resources for housing, food, and transport in Iceland to meet student needs.
We documented our experiences in addition to those of the student groups working alongside us in Iceland. We investigated expenses, student life, and project experience in Iceland. We collected survey and interview data to support our claims. Experiences with transportation were the largest focus of this objective. Based on our student experience evaluations, we investigated the municipalities of Greater Reykjavik for alternative housing locations.

Objective 4: Produce materials to promote and support an Iceland Project Center to WPI students and sponsors.
We produced media materials to showcase the Iceland Project Center to WPI students and potential sponsors. These materials included promotional videos, student handbook revisions, presentations, and a project center logo. Additionally, we produced a website to compile all the different digital media resources we produced.

Through our first hand experiences in Iceland we were able to evaluate the feasibility of the Iceland Project Center. The following points are findings from our methods. Interviews with IGSD faculty highlighted successful project center characteristics. A successful project center needs invested center directors and faculty advisors as well as a strong sponsor network. We put most of our effort into developing the sponsor network during the project term. Our faculty interviews revealed that certain sponsor sectors are more suitable than others for coordinating interdisciplinary projects. Students tend to work with smaller, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and museums, because these Organizations often lack resources to work on projects full-time and are more open to student creativity. We focused on these sectors when finding and contacting potential sponsoring organizations.

We emailed 67 potential sponsors and met with ten organizations who were interested in working with WPI students. By the end of the term, our sponsor network consisted of four ‘definite yes’, two ‘very interested’, and four ‘maybe’ organizations. Establishing a point of contact and arranging meetings proved to be the most difficult aspect of creating the sponsor network.
The Icelandic community is very close knit, making it difficult to establish initial communication with organizations. As outsiders, we primarily relied on our emails to present ourselves professionally and to relay key information about the program in a condensed way. Transportation from Akranes to Reykjavik was inconvenient. Additionally, travel to other parts of Iceland proved to be nearly impossible without a car. Moreover, the buses outside the city are considerably expensive. The best, yet most expensive, way for students to see the natural wonders of Iceland is to book a private tour. Student feedback played an important role in evaluating housing, transportation and student life options. We used feedback from other IQP teams to assess Akranes as a housing location and to investigate the municipalities within Greater Reykjavik. In our investigation we found four municipalities that could provide housing options closer to sponsors than Akranes.

Many international project opportunities are offered in B term, C term, and D term. There are fewer opportunities offered in A term and E term. New international project centers active during A or E term provide students with more flexibility when scheduling their projects.

Due to the vast number of tourists visiting Iceland during the summer, housing is expensive and in high demand. Thus, it would be difficult to coordinate affordable housing for 24 students during E term. During B and C term, daylight hours are limited and winter weather conditions are harsh, making project work and travel difficult. Therefore, we recommend that a project center should be opened in Iceland during A Term.

Based on potential student project complications, we recommend that students learn the fundamentals of the Icelandic language during PQP/ID2050 through the online language learning platform that WPI offers. Exposure to the language would benefit both sponsors and students for several potential projects and enhance student life while in Iceland. Moreover, we recommend finding a local liaison. This would be helpful for translating any surveys that students produce and in assisting students with their Icelandic during the project term.

We recommend that IGSD include the price for a two month bus pass within the program costs. Without a bus pass, student spending will greatly increase at the expense of a quality student experience. If housing is in Akranes, the country bus pass costs ~$354 (39,360 ISK). If housing is in Reykjavik, the city bus pass costs ~$177 (19,680 ISK). Cards can be purchased ahead of time via the Strætó website and available for students to pick up when they arrive in country.

A group tour would be a great way to introduce students to the natural wonders of Iceland. We recommend reserving a group Golden Circle Complete tour through Arctic Adventures. This tour was very informative and a great introduction to Icelandic history and geology. The tour provided a large variety of sights for the day-long timeframe. We found that the tour was worth the $108 cost per person, as other tours offer fewer opportunities, for a higher cost.

Although Akranes was a suitable housing location, many potential sponsoring organizations and cultural activities were located in the Reykjavik area. Thus, we recommend finding student housing accommodations in the greater Reykjavik municipalities. IGSD should prioritize housing locations in the Kópavogur, Mosfellsbær, Hafnarfjörður, and Garðabær municipalities because they offer many resources for students and provide easy access to Reykjavík center.

The research, results, recommendations, and deliverables we provided serve as a foundation for establishing the Iceland Project Center. As a result of our efforts, the Iceland Project Center has the potential to provide future students with immersive experiences, both recreationally and academically. At the conclusion of this feasibility study, we have determined that Iceland is a fantastic location for expanding the Global Projects Program.