Illustration of Melbourne, Australia

A Big Impact Down Under

Aside from kangaroos, koalas, and the Outback, one of the first things people associate with Australia is that everything there is big. The continent itself, the Great Barrier Reef, the spiders and other critters that may sneak their way into your home (or, worse yet, shoes), and, of course, the Big Things themselves (just Google “Australia Big Things”). 

So it’s only fitting that the impact WPI students have there is big, too.

Established in 1998, the Melbourne, Australia, Project Center gives WPI students the chance to immerse themselves within the city of Melbourne and across the state of Victoria while working on a wide variety of projects. It’s one of WPI’s most popular project centers, quickly growing from being offered two times per academic year to three—B-, C-, and D-Terms—which allows for the completion of 18 projects per year. The project center will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2023.

Currently co-directed by Lorraine Higgins, teaching professor in The Global School, and Stephen McCauley, associate professor of teaching in The Global School, the center was founded by the late professor of computer science Matt Ward ’77 and Jonathan Barnett, professor and co-founder of the Department of Fire Protection Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering, who used his firefighter and other emergency services contacts to offer projects in that particular sector, in addition to working with many other partner organizations. Since then, the center has branched out considerably, working with nearly 50 Melbourne partners on projects involving everything from emergency services and family support to urban planning, bio-energy hubs, research on microplastics pollution, and promotion of alternative energy sources.

Many centers focus on one or two themes, but we have touched on a diversity of global problems through our work with government agencies, charitable organizations, and even the private sector.

Professor Lorraine Higgins

“I think that’s what makes us unique,” says Higgins, who began co-directing the center with McCauley in 2016. “Many centers focus on one or two themes, but we have touched on a diversity of global problems through our work with government agencies, charitable organizations, and even the private sector; our work sometimes brings together different sectors that can collaborate effectively and move research straight into policy making.”

She notes the many studies of microplastics in waterways have influenced Victorian policy, with the government now recognizing this type of pollutant. Clean water advocates in other countries are also beginning to use some of the innovative sampling techniques and citizen science methods coming out of the project center. 

“It’s important to us not to just walk in, do the work, and leave,” McCauley says, adding that in the past, local Melbourne sponsors have been able to take pieces of student work over time to build new organizational practices. “Our series of projects on the mental health of emergency service workers, for instance, is leading to new support services for volunteers in the sector.  We’ve been able to foster connections that lead to real change, and our students have utilized those relationships to put their work into action while being challenged and stretched in their own lives.”

The opportunity to do just that is what appealed most to Gabrielle Tims ’23 when narrowing down her project center options. “I’ve never traveled very far, and I really wanted to step out of my comfort zone,” she explains. “The fact that I would be living there for a longer period of time while working with the community made it a perfect opportunity.”

Tims and her team worked with their sponsor, the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, to help bridge the gap between disadvantaged young people seeking employment and manufacturing and agricultural companies looking for employees. Through focus groups and interviews with employers, the team developed an online tool to help young people (many of whom are unable to pursue higher education or come from refugee backgrounds) in their job searches.

“I definitely learned what working professionally is truly like as opposed to what I’m used to in taking college courses,” she says, adding that through her team’s work, she was able to refine her presentation skills, better host meetings and interviews, and more effectively manage her time. “Being the one who was from a different country for the first time and working with young people who are not from a background similar to mine also put my perception of the world into a new perspective.”

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