Paxton Farm Stay

A Project Center Close to Home

From Worcester, England, to Worcester, Mass.—it’s a catchy way to encapsulate the breadth of WPI’s Global Projects Program. Students have their pick of more than 50 project centers across six continents to complete their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP).

But what about those who prefer to stay closer to home?

“Whether it’s because of on-campus responsibilities or a local job, not all students want to travel far [for their IQP],” says Lisa Stoddard, associate professor of teaching and director of the Farm Stay Project Center. “Regardless of where they go, we want all students to have the chance to experience the mainstay of a WPI education.”

Located in nearby Paxton, Mass., the Farm Stay Project Center is a collaboration with Turn Back Time, a nonprofit 58-acre farm and nature-based education center. Executive Director Lisa Burris originally started the farm to help support her two children, who struggled with challenging behaviors and needed a place to be themselves and learn without boundaries. The farm works with children ages 3–12, with a focus on supporting those who are in the foster care system, have experienced trauma, are neurodiverse, or struggle with behavioral issues in and out of the classroom.

Farm Stay Project Center

After hearing about another local farm partnering with WPI for an IQP, Burris reached out and met with Stoddard; soon afterward, the project center began to take shape. Projects primarily focus on water management, renewable energy, climate resilience, organic food production, forest management, and learning opportunities for the farm’s visitors. Additionally, teams are expected to write a curriculum to pair with their project.

First-year students who are enrolled in Stoddard’s Great Problems Seminar course “Heal the World” also have the opportunity to explore the project center as part of their work, which is exactly how Minh Anh Kieu ’22 realized that it was the perfect place for her to complete her IQP.

“It was so large and lively with all the greenery and the animals—and children running around laughing,” recalls Kieu. Another special aspect of the project center was that it reminded her of her parents’ farm back in Vietnam. “I feel very connected to Turn Back Time’s mission to provide educational opportunities to children through natural exposure and exploration.”

They focused on what the children themselves wanted and needed in the space and created a functional outdoor classroom where they can be engaged for hours.

Executive Director Lisa Burris

Victoria Heffern ’23 agrees. “I had personally never heard of forest schooling, and the concept seemed very distinct,” she says. “We often solely think of traditional schooling methods, with maybe some outdoor STEM component, but never address the alternatives.”

Addressing the alternatives is exactly what Heffern and her team did with their project. What began as the development of a bridge system to cross over a muddy rainwater runoff area  evolved into a forest classroom, featuring an area for research materials, hands-on interactive exhibits, magnifying stations, and places to sit down and read among nature.

“It’s a beautiful learning area,” says Burris. “They focused on what the children themselves wanted and needed in the space and created a functional outdoor classroom where they can be engaged for hours.”

In true WPI fashion, the project center has evolved from its initial scope. Thanks to over $33,000 raised by the Class of 2020 as part of their Senior Class Gift, Turn Back Time was able to embark on a $200,000 project to build a community yurt with kitchen, living, and dining space, a bathhouse, and three cabins, giving student teams the opportunity to live on site.

There’s much to enjoy while being immersed in the project center, but when asked what her favorite part of it all is, Stoddard has no trouble narrowing it down. “Seeing what makes each student come alive,” she says. “For some, it’s holding a bird for the first time ever. For others, it’s the chance to see the way their work is impacting the kids, or building something that’ll be a major part of the farm’s infrastructure. All these emotions come through learning, and it’s been great to see them shift from a strict classroom setting to tackling abstract ideas.”

Exclusive Digital Content:

Check out the Farm Stay Project Center, and hear students explain what they worked on during the summer of 2021.

Click on this switch to toggle between day and night modes.