Assessing the Impacts of the London Project Center

Sponsor: WPI London Project Center FullSizeRender
Sponsor Liaison: Dominic Golding, Paula Quinn
Student Team: Calum Briggs, Lauren Getz, Emily McGlame, Michael Padberg
Abstract: The London Project Center was established in 1987 as WPI’s first international site for students to complete the Interactive Qualifying Project (see timeline). The center’s history is largely unrecorded and lacks centralized formal documentation regarding its development and impacts on its stakeholders. Our team, through this project, assessed the impacts of the project center on its alumni and sponsoring organizations using an alumni survey and interviews with faculty and sponsors. We also documented an account of the center’s origin and 30-year history.



Center Timeline

Executive Summary

The London Project Center was WPI’s first abroad location for students to complete their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) after the project system at the institution was established through the WPI Plan in 1970. The center was formally established in 1987, and will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017. Over the past 30 years, the London Project Center has grown and changed, but there has been little centralized formal record of its development. Despite its vast outreach to sponsoring organizations and large number of completed projects, there are uncertainties regarding the center’s origins and its evolution, as well as no way to ascertain for certain the impact the project center has had on its alumni and sponsors. We hoped to fill the knowledge gaps regarding the history and evolution of the London Project Center. Our goal through this project was to gain an understanding of the history and impact of the London Project Center (LPC) over the past 30 years. In order to achieve this goal, we developed the following three research objectives:

1. Achieve a comprehensive understanding of the effects the LPC has had on its alumni throughout their personal and professional lives.
2. Understand how student projects have affected sponsoring government organizations and nonprofits of London.
3. Compile a complete history of the London Project Center from its beginnings to current day and document how and why various aspects have changed over the years.

As a result of the diversification of program audiences by US colleges and universities, enrollment in study abroad programs has increased substantially, with approximately three times as many students going abroad today as 20 years ago (Vande Berg, 2007). In cases where study abroad programs have shown repeated success, faculty and staff have acknowledged success is due to the students’ ability to learn in ways that would not be possible on their own college campuses (Vande Berg, 2007). Until recently, there were large gaps in study abroad opportunities for students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields due to strict curriculum and time constraints, as well as a lack of willingness from foreign universities to go through the process of obtaining ABET accreditation (Fees, 2015). Programs that include the opportunity for studying abroad have needed to become flexible in order to accommodate participants in STEM majors (Oguntoyinbo, 2015). Many technical institutions, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have even created models that integrate not only studying, but also hands-on project work into their students’ experiences abroad, allowing students to gain real-world experience and hone their professional skills.
The WPI Plan is an integral part of the curriculum since its establishment in 1970. The foundation of the Plan was to combine project-based problem solving with theoretical practice, which included the implementation of the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) and Major Qualifying Project (MQP) (Launching the WPI Plan, n.d.). The IQP and the MQP were the two most innovative components of the Plan, and also the two most challenging to develop. The WPI Plan was derived from extensive research on education models at other universities, including Cambridge and Oxford in England, Ecole Polytechnique in France, and ETH in Zurich. WPI began its first abroad exchange program through the Plan in London, England in 1974 (Launching the WPI Plan, n.d.). This was the beginning of WPI’s Global Project’s Program, with William Grogan, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the time, working to establish first project centers where today’s students travel to complete their IQPs. At the time of the Plan’s implementation, it was said to be 25 years ahead of its time. With the development of global awareness, and cross-cultural competency in engineering programs becoming more and more prevalent, WPI has worked to expand its opportunities for its students with over 40 unique project centers around the world (Project Centers, n.d).

Project-based learning focuses on the process of overcoming obstacles and applying knowledge in order to complete a task (Mills, 2003, p.8). Over the last several decades, many technical institutions, especially WPI, have placed a greater emphasis on application of theoretical principles, research, and teamwork skills in a project setting, promoting this idea of project-based learning (Mills, 2003, p.9). Graduates of universities that follow a project-based approach have shown stronger teamwork and communication skills (Mills, 2003, p.12). Additionally, with an increasing demand for innovative engineers to work in ever-changing technological fields, traditional “chalk and talk” education styles are unlikely to produce graduates with the skills to perform optimally in today’s industry (Mills, 2003, p.13). Problem-based learning as a separate concept focuses on final results and solving an existing issue using a student-defined and student-run approach. In this way, the IQP can be seen as a melding of problem-based and project-based learning, combining the student defined goal and proposal with the need to implement a solution in a methodical and comprehensive fashion. The WPI international IQP is a unique opportunity that stresses the teamwork and communication skills required to succeed in the professional world.

WPI students who completed an IQP at the London Project Center are important sources of information in understanding the lasting impact that the project center has had. We needed to evaluate the experiences of project center alumni in order to determine how completing an IQP in London has affected their life personally and professionally. To accomplish this, we created an online survey, which served as a primary source of data collection for alumni experience. The survey consisted of closed ended items (CEIs) where respondents would select from scalar responses, as well as open-ended questions to allow for elaboration. Each question asked the alumni to rate one aspect of how their London IQP may have had an effect on their personal life, academic and professional careers, or their project’s sponsoring organization. We also distributed a second online form to alumni that noted they would be available for future follow-up for the purpose of learning more about individual experiences and generating alumni testimonials.

Understanding how sponsoring organizations in London have been affected by the work of the LPC is critical to understanding the center’s overall impact. We created a plan to conduct interviews with key people from London organizations that have sponsored one or more student projects through the London Project Center. A list of potential interviewees was compiled by searching through past projects for recent and repeat sponsors, as well as from the advice of Director Dominic Golding. As we performed interviews, more contacts were suggested to us by sponsor project liaisons. The interview protocol was designed to encourage sponsors to reflect upon their experiences working with WPI student teams and share how they feel the students’ projects have had a significant impact, as well as any suggestions they have for improvement. Of the 15 sponsors we contacted, we were able to conduct 13 interviews either in-person or via telephone or internet calls.
In order to investigate the London Project Center and document how various aspects have changed over the past 30 years, we collected key historical information on the formation of the center from those involved in its establishment. This was done through both interviews with WPI faculty who have had involvement with the project center, as well as searching through project records. We worked to compile any temporal data regarding the center into an ordered and logical account based on information gathered from faculty involved in the center, especially those who were part of its establishment. We also organized information gathered from contact with alumni of the center and past sponsors of the center in order to analyze changing demographics of projects and sponsors over the course of the cent9ber’s existence.

Results and Recommendations
The results of our alumni survey provided us with an overwhelmingly positive response. From 733 valid emails we received 395 responses, for a response rate of 54%. Many alumni cited their IQP experience as being one of the most beneficial experiences of their academic career, supporting development of valuable professional skills that they carried into their professional lives and future endeavors. In our 13 interviews with project liaisons from sponsoring organizations, many reported the students exceeded expectations, and provided organizations with unique perspectives and solutions.

We created multiple deliverables with the use of our findings. The first was a digital timeline that displays the development of the project center and the various projects completed throughout the past 30 years. We also created a brochure about the scope of the London Project Center to be distributed at WPI’s Global Fair, an event where students can learn more about each abroad project center. From the Qualtrics form distributed to alumni for follow up, we gathered information to be used for alumni testimonials. We prepared these materials in such a way that the are suitable for integration into the WPI London Project Center website to help prospective IQP students understand the value of completing projects through the LPC by learning the center’s history and impacts on others.

Through the analysis and understanding of the data collected, we were able to draw the following three main conclusions regarding the impact of the London Project Center. First, students who complete projects through the London Project Center gain a greater understanding of other cultures, and become more comfortable traveling to new places. Second, the London Project Center IQP program fosters student growth, making for success in professional environments. Third, students bring new ideas and innovative points of view to sponsoring organizations working to solve complex problems.

Taking into account the data collected through the alumni survey and sponsor interviews as well as these conclusions, we devised three main recommendations for our sponsor to increase the success of IQPs hosted through the London Project Center. First, we suggested informing the sponsors more accurately regarding the structure of the preparation term as making this information apparent to the sponsoring organizations early on in the process of setting up projects will make the transition between the preparation term and completion of IQP smoother. Additionally, if sponsors are allowed more contact with the advisors and ID 2050 professor during this period, the project can run more efficiently as all parties involved in guiding the project to completion can become aware of common expectations and determine a realistic timeline. Second, we recommended that the London Project Center work to host a small-scale reception each term for the sponsoring organizations. This opportunity for sponsors to network and share their experiences could increase their willingness to continue hosting projects with WPI, or could help open doors to working with additional organizations. Third, we proposed that the project center establish a follow-up protocol with the sponsoring organizations in London. This would help to combat alumni uncertainty regarding the impacts their projects have had on sponsors and the greater community beyond their 7 weeks in London, and would also help the center keep more centralized documentation of all the projects completed.