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WPI pioneers robotics engineering in a culturally diverse environment

A robotics engineering degree includes study of the disciplines of electrical, computer and mechanical engineering plus computer science

The programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, MA), a private research university, tackle challenges of science and technology in both theory and practice. The German motto that appears on the school�s shield, Lehr und Kunst, translates to �learning and skilled art,� and applies to undergraduate as well as graduate students.

�Project-based learning focuses on solving real-world problems,� says Michael McGrade, director of graduate admissions. �The nature of the research is team-based and interdisciplinary. It forces people to think outside their own specialties.�

Taking the classroom around the world
Undergraduates are required to complete an interactive qualifying project that involves research in the fields of science, technology, social issues and human needs. Students earn credit equivalent to three courses for the work.

One team recently fabricated paper insulation for shantytown shacks in Africa. Another helped a rural community in the southern Namibian desert develop safe water and sanitation systems.

About half of undergraduates work on interactive qualifying projects in other countries. Students also have the opportunity to study abroad for a year in a separate program. For this initiative, students work for a for-profit company, a non-governmental organization, or a government agency, supervised by WPI faculty.

Masters degree programs are both course-based and thesis-based. Graduate degrees through the PhD level are offered in seventeen disciplines, from business and basic science and engineering programs like chemistry and mechanical engineering to less common offerings like learning sciences and technologies, fire protection engineering and system dynamics.

McGrade encourages prospective graduate students to research which WPI professors are working on the kinds of problems that the students hope to solve, rather than focusing on a particular engineering specialty. The project-based approach allows students and their faculty advisors to attack complex problems and assemble teams whose members have the range of expertise needed to solve them.

WPI: robotics innovator
Robotics engineering, combining the study of electrical, computer and mechanical engineering with computer science, is a signature program. WPI was the first university in the country to offer an undergraduate degree in robotics. The school also offers robotics masters and PhD degrees.

Not surprisingly, WPI and its students are involved in many robotics competitions. In partnership with NASA, WPI hosts the Sample Return Robotics Challenge to design robotics to explore other worlds. For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) has partnered with WPI to improve communication between robotics teams. Together, they have built an interactive web portal, thinktank.wpi.edu.

A WPI-Carnegie Mellon University team finished among the top eight teams in the 2013 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge (DRC). That challenge was conceived after the March 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, which created an environment that is too hazardous for people to enter. DRC competitors were asked to complete eight specific tasks typical of disaster response, including clearing debris and climbing a ladder. The WPI Atlas Robot for Nonconventional Emergency Response (WARNER), which is 6�2�? tall and weighs 330 pounds, won in the Best in Task-Vehicle category by driving a Polaris Ranger XP 900 250 feet in just six minutes.

Robotics research at WPI spans many departments. For example, faculty from the robotics engineering program and social sciences and policy studies department are developing personal assistant robots for elderly people with age-related disabilities. Undergraduate design projects will be part of the research.

Other robotics research projects include the development of robots that show emotion and interact with people and robots that can collaborate with humans on manufacturing operations, plus research on the best ways to teach robots to do simple tasks.

Students with undergraduate degrees in ME, EE and CS are especially encouraged to apply to the robotics graduate programs, although those with an interest in robotics and degrees in other areas are welcome too.

A diverse community adds new dimensions to an already diverse campus
WPI has a variety of outreach activities that graduate students can participate in through the school�s office of multicultural activities. One activity, Camp Reach, is a two-week residential program for girls going into seventh grade. It was honored by President Obama with a 2011 Presidential award for excellence in science, mathematics and engineering mentoring. The award came with a $25,000 NSF grant.

WPI hosts an Exxon Mobil Bernard Harris summer science camp for underserved students. The two-week residential camp for middle-school students, hosted by universities across the U.S., includes activities to build community and develop identity.

The program is named for African American astronaut Bernard Harris. The camp is free and all materials are provided. Minority graduate students and faculty members serve as role models and teachers to the students.

�This camp may be these students� first exposure to someone in the STEM field who looks like them,� says Bonnie Hall, director of the office of multicultural affairs. �They get so excited about the work they are doing. We want to expose them to how exciting and creative STEM disciplines can be.�

Two NSF programs are available on campus: the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, which supports interdisciplinary work for doctoral students in the field of biofabrication, and Research Experience for Undergraduates in mathematics and biomedical engineering.

Worcester�s proximity to Boston makes it easy to access that city�s cultural offerings, and Worcester itself is a magnet for all kinds of diversity. Although its population is less than 200,000 residents, the city is home to ten colleges and universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Demographically, the city�s population is 12 percent African American, 21 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, and about 10 percent other minority races.

�There are hundreds of languages spoken in this area,� says WPI senior vice president Kristin Tichenor. �The locale adds another level of pluralism and cultural diversity to what we offer here on campus.�


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Main campus: Worcester, MA
Students: 4,102 undergraduate, 1,916 graduate
Graduate & UG tech degrees offered: BS, MS, ME, PhD, professional certificates in a wide range of engineering and IT specialties
Ways to matriculate: Full time and part time

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