An illustration depicting scenes from Ghana, including a hippopotamus and some modern buildings

The Ghana Project Center

Hannah Murray ’21 had several reasons for wanting to travel to the Ghana Project Center: being a part of its pilot year, choosing from the variety of project options, immersing herself in a new culture, and fulfilling a longtime desire to travel to Africa.

All good reasons—but one of the most prevalent? It made her nervous.

“I was a little scared to live such a different way of life for two months,” she says, “which I took as a sign that I needed to go.”

WPI’s newest project center builds upon longstanding efforts to prepare students to have a lasting impact on the world through STEM. The idea for the project center was sparked by the nearly 20-year friendship between Rob Krueger (project center director and department head of Social Science and Policy Studies) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Kwabena Kyei-Aboagye Jr., who hails from Ghana himself.

“We worked closely on urban environmental issues in the United States, and he’d been asking me to do some work in Ghana for years,” Krueger says. That initial nudge from Kyei-Aboagye eventually led to WPI’s hosting a Ghanaian king and the Ghanaian Ambassador to the United States on campus to discuss collaboration opportunities. Later, it led to a meeting with the president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo. This created a dynamic domino effect that brought about the project center’s creation and its first cohort of students, who returned just before COVID-19 restrictions began in March.

While the project center is new, its roots already run deep, boasting a wealth of partnerships with Ghanaian communities, educational and governmental organizations, and traditional leadership. These partnerships not only allow for student project work, but also for faculty to explore myriad research projects, ranging from how algorithms and natural language processing is affected in Africa to exploring recycling effectiveness and efficiency in Agbogbloshie, the largest e-waste site in Africa. Through Krueger’s Development Design Lab, projects run year-round on campus, in addition to the C-Term experience.

Detail from the Ghana illustration depicting a hippopotamus

“I was a little scared to live such a different way of life for two months, which I took as a sign that I needed to go.”

No matter the topic, a collaborative streak runs throughout the entire operation, and that’s exactly what Krueger wants—after all, the project center wouldn’t be a reality without the efforts of many people from around the world, something that’s mirrored in the work being done there.

“We don’t go in as experts,” Krueger explains. “We go in as partners with the community. We didn’t view Africa as a place that has problems, but a place that has assets, and our job is to help cultivate those assets that promote self-sufficiency.”

That’s exactly how Murray and her team approached their project, working with a group of local tradespeople to co-design and build a bridge that replaced a recently damaged one in Dwenase. “[The experience] taught me how to think about real-world problems beyond the scope of engineering,” she says. “… the decisions engineers make affect the livelihood of the community. It’s so important to make decisions in the field with empathy and a well-rounded perspective.”

One of Krueger’s favorite moments of the project center’s inaugural year came from Murray’s project—the community partners wanted to add a layer of concrete underneath the wood girders of the bridge being built to protect it from termites. It was an important innovation that could have come only from someone with local knowledge, and a perfect example of expertise combining to create an effective solution. “It was an a-ha moment,” Krueger says. “We were all going through the motions of collaborating, but really didn’t know what understanding, appreciating, and valuing local knowledge meant until that moment.”

For all the reasons she had to travel to Ghana in the first place, Murray has just as many pieces of advice for future students: explore, learn the language, ask questions. Recalling her own nervousness about stepping out of her comfort zone, she offers one final piece of advice that, for her, brings everything full circle.

“Do things that make you nervous,” she says.

Hannah Murray ’21 talks about her experience at WPI’s Ghana Project Center and the project she and her teammates worked on: co-designing and building a bridge–in collaboration with a group of local tradespeople–to replace a recently damaged one in Dwenase.
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