Emilia Perez considers herself a positive person, but when the WPI junior learned in March that her spring trip to India for an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) had been canceled along with all university travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt a loss.

“Of course, I can go another time,” says Perez, an environmental engineering major who had been scheduled to study ecotourism opportunities in India. “But the project aspect of it—meeting people and interviewing people—I am very aware that I have lost that experience.”

She’s not the only one. About 280 WPI students and their advisors who had been scheduled to depart for offshore projects centers in early March were instead told to scuttle their plans as public health authorities raised alarms about a novel coronavirus spreading worldwide.

Teams that would have been in South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia scattered to their homes to work remotely, sometimes on entirely different topics.

Ingrid Shockey, director of the India Project Center, who had planned to accompany 22 students to the Himalayan foothills community of Mandi, feared students unable to travel would feel despondent. But that’s not what happened.

“They’re interested in what’s possible,” Shockey says. “We’re at the point now, instead of saying, ‘What have we lost?’ we’re saying, ‘What can we still do?’ ”

For many WPI undergraduates, junior-year travel to a project center to tackle a problem at the intersection of science and society is a highlight of the WPI experience.

Alex Harrigan, an aerospace engineering major, had been scheduled to go to the Berlin Project Center with a team to assist the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries with better integration of open-source software practices. Instead of interviewing the Institute’s staff in person, the team shifted to email and video conferences with the German staffers.

“There are going to be technical hiccups with having to deal with that many online interviews, but it’s definitely a relief being able to just continue with a lot of the work we had previously planned,” says Harrigan.

For project directors and advisors from the Bucharest Project Center, the reimagining of a global, project-based learning experience consisted of immersion into the sights, smells, and rich history of Romania without actually stepping on its soil.

“We’re at the point now, instead of saying, ‘What have we lost?’ we’re saying, ‘What can we still do?”

In addition to working on their IQP focusing on promoting eco-tourism, raising awareness on pollen allergies, saving urban green spaces, redesigning intergenerational learning centers, and promoting collaborations through the American Chamber of Commerce in Romania, students have sampled the country’s signature dishes, and hosted special guests via teleconferencing to discuss history, geography, art, and film. “We are constantly working to keep the teams focused and enthusiastic,” says project co-director and associate teaching professor Rodica Neamtu, computer science.

Through it all, students still had an obligation to complete projects and satisfy sponsors, says Sarah Stanlick, assistant professor of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies. “Working under an emergency situation and pivoting, that is a great lesson to learn,” she says.

Still, some projects simply could not go forward as planned. Of five teams scheduled to go to the Paraguay Project Center, two teams working on wetlands conservation and scientific problem solving in Paraguay dissolved.

History professor Peter Hansen came up with a new theme for students who needed to pivot to something different: collecting, compiling, and analyzing stories from the pandemic.

Perez was among the students who signed on, and she came to feel the project had more global connections than the one she originally pursued.

“Ecotourism isn’t something that’s applicable everywhere in the world,” Perez says. “This project (about the pandemic) is something that every single person in the world has a story about.”

Learn more about WPI’s Global Projects Program here

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