Illustration of a bear in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

Building Confidence While Helping the Environment

One of WPI’s newest project centers is only two hours from Worcester, but students who go there get their horizons broadened nonetheless. Quite literally, in fact.

The White Mountains, New Hampshire, Project Center, located in Lincoln, hosted its first full cohort of 16 students during A-Term in 2023 after a pilot program the year before. The four student teams worked on projects that will help visitors to the White Mountains enjoy safe and responsible recreation. Project center director Corey Dehner, associate professor of teaching in the Department of Integrative & Global Studies, found inspiration for the new project center during the 2021–22 academic year.

“The mental health crisis at WPI made me acutely aware of the need to help our students reconnect with nature and slow down,” Dehner says. She wanted to help establish a project center where students would be able to build their confidence, leadership abilities, and sense of community while also doing something good for the environment.

That environmental focus was one of the main reasons junior Katelyn Beirne was interested in doing her Interactive Qualifying Project in New Hampshire this fall. “There are a lot of really cool IQPs that focus on something cultural, but they weren’t as outdoorsy as I wanted,” says Beirne, a data science major who grew up on a small farm in Massachusetts. “I knew I wanted to get outside and do something to help the environment.”

Her IQP team developed lesson plans to teach a variety of audiences the 10 essentials to bring when hiking in the backcountry, as well as basic outdoor etiquette centered around the principles of Leave No Trace. Not only did the project let her spend lots of time outside, it gave her the opportunity to pay forward her love of nature by helping others learn to be better environmental stewards.

The other IQP teams at the project center this fall developed conservation information specific to New Hampshire’s alpine zone that hikers can access in four languages through a QR code on trail signs; designed and set up a physical site where forestry staff will lead hands-on ecology lessons with middle school students; and created a series of short educational videos about “recreating responsibly” that the White Mountain National Forest can share with visitors.

All students at the project center also participate in a wilderness ethics certificate program that’s made possible through a collaboration between WPI, the World Trails Network, and the Waterman Fund.

“It’s less based on professional skills and training someone for a specific career and more focused on helping students understand the externalities of whatever they do. I hope they will use this education to make informed decisions in their professions,” notes Dehner. “The goal is also to help students develop a deeper connection to nature and realize the mental health benefits of spending time in nature.”

Associate Professor Seth Tuler leads a hike with students in New Hampshire.

Associate Professor Seth Tuler leads a hike with students in New Hampshire.

To earn the certificate, students complete assigned readings and written reflections; participate in weekly fireside chats about various environmental topics with members of the local community; gain some perspective from the local Indigenous community; participate in a volunteer project within the national forest; complete a Leave No Trace training; and do a solo hike with reading and reflection.

Junior Danielle Cook especially enjoyed her solo hike to the summit of Mount Hedgehog, which gave her a real sense of accomplishment. Particularly memorable was a fireside chat with the head speakers of the Cowasuck band of the Penacook-Abenaki People, Denise and Paul Pouliot. “They spoke about their culture and beliefs from a scientific perspective,” which impressed Cook, a biomedical engineering and professional writing double major. “It struck me because they were talking from a very fact-driven place and weren’t pushing any religion.”

Gaining an appreciation for local knowledge and traditions, especially from Indigenous perspectives, is an important part of what Dehner wants students to take with them from this project center. Along the way, she hopes that a transformative time in New Hampshire will ultimately help students see and value what’s in their own backyards.

This is an abbreviated version of a story that ran on the WPI Today news site. Read the whole story.

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