WORCESTER, MA — It's always exciting when Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) students prepare to depart for their Interactive Qualifying Projects (IQP) experiences, but there's an added spark when they're going to be the inaugural group to travel to a particular project center.

Andrew Hand of Pace was one of six students from the Worchester Polytechnic Institute.

That was the case for six students who were all set to be the first group of students to travel to one of WPI's newest project centers in Montana's Glacier National Park. Hand, a member of the class of 2020 majoring in computer science, was a member of this group.

Those plans quickly changed.

Glacier was one of the areas ravaged by devastating wildfires in 2018. After careful monitoring, the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division (IGSD) team, which is responsible for all non-academic aspects of the Global Projects Program, from housing and confirming program dates to creating on-site handbooks and operating a 24-hour emergency line for all project centers, decided it would not be feasible to begin the project work in August due to safety issues and travel restrictions. The trip was then postponed four weeks.

Recognizing the students would not be able to spend the entirety of their IQP in Glacier National Park as planned, project center director Fred Bianchi, who also serves as director of the Bar Harbor Project Center situated within Acadia National Park, suggested the idea of the students completing their work, which would be able to translate well from one park to the other, in both locations. Assistant director of the Global Projects Program Erin Bell worked closely with Bianchi to prepare this contingency plan and relay it to students, helping them coordinate plans to get to Maine instead of Montana as seamlessly as possible.

"It was an elegant solution, and one that really worked out well," says Anne Ogilvie, executive director of the Global Projects Program.

This is not the first time that weather or natural disasters has forced the IGSD team to quickly change course. The situation has echoes of the one faced in 2017 by 22 students whose plans to travel to Puerto Rico to complete their IQP were derailed by Hurricane Maria. With the hurricane destruction making it unsafe for students, the IGSD team, along with faculty advisors and others, worked tirelessly behind the scenes and in just weeks helped the students shift their project work to something closer to home, and just as meaningful-organizing relief efforts and helping island citizens resettle in Worcester.

Adapt and overcome

The project team ended up spending four weeks in Acadia and three weeks in Glacier. Because many national parks are experiencing similar problems, they were able to pursue the same projects at each park with minimal adjustments so that both parks could benefit from the students' work.

"The students were amazing. They saw something new and interesting in every obstacle. That's exactly how every WPI student must approach the experience of working off-campus," said Bianchi.

"We were able to take a situation that had 'failure' written all over it and turn it into a success that was beyond what we could have imagined," says Bianchi, describing his pride at the students' flexibility, openness, and excitement as they immersed themselves in both parks. The experience even sparked a potential idea for future off-campus experiences: having students travel to two or even three different parks over the course of a single term.

While it may not have been a typical IQP experience, the students did what WPI students do best: they embraced the challenge and were ultimately able to craft together a memorable and impactful seven weeks of project work.

"They were amazing," Bianchi says. "They saw something new and interesting in every obstacle. That's exactly how every WPI student must approach the experience of working off-campus."