Member Spotlight: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Blog Post
Jay Yuan /
May 11, 2021

This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.

From the global to the local level, PIT-UN member Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is deeply committed to building the field of public interest tech, strengthening the career pipeline for students, and building innovative programming that emphasizes technology’s connections with society.

Founded in 1865, WPI offers technical education with a project-based curriculum and a strong focus on global engagement and public service. The school joined PIT-UN in 2020, already boasting a strong background in public interest technology. A 2020 Network Challenge grant now supports seven PIT initiatives at WPI, with more in the works.

The seven “Signature Projects” comprise a diversity of disciplines and perspectives that embodies a central goal of PIT-UN—increasing interdisciplinary collaboration and cooperation under the umbrella of PIT, rather than simply bringing elements of the humanities into technical education or vice-versa.

WPI’s signature projects include Professor Gillian Smith’s exploration of the metaphorical relationship between computer science and quilting, which brings WPI students together with Worcester-area quilters to connect introductory computer science with public interest principles. Another, led by Professor Farley Chery, will develop tools and curriculum to help game designers and animators build racially and ethnically diverse characters in their projects—something many creators currently lack the resources and training to accomplish. A third, headed by Professor Aaron Sakulich, will work with the City of Worcester to adapt low- or no-cost tech to aid community members with citizen science efforts around preserving and protecting the city’s 20 lakes and ponds.

Still more signature projects include enhancing sustainability work with the help of robotics, using biotechnology to study the physical effects of discrimination, teaching engineering students the importance and practice of public policy, and studying the integration of STEM and social justice curriculum. And faculty are currently laying the groundwork for a Fall launch of WPI’s Center for Technology and Transformative Justice, led by Professor Laureen Elgert.

PIT-UN co-designee Professor Yunus Telliel says WPI is “heavily invested in developing a social justice perspective in STEM,” and since joining PIT-UN has built much of its new PIT work on this existing social justice focus.

“I think one thing that is important for us is that ‘public interest’ in PIT can be interpreted in ways that justify unjust practices,” says Telliel. “Starting with indigenous peoples, many communities in this continent have been dispossessed of their lands and belongings in the name of public interest.”

Telliel adds that while WPI sees the appeal of a “public interest” framing in contrast to the dominance of major tech companies, “we believe that PIT needs guidance… what we try to do at WPI is to embed PIT in social justice.”

WPI’s PIT commitment also has a global dimension. The school’s Institute of Science and Technology for Development, directed by Professor Rob Krueger, maintains active partnerships with several technology universities in sub-saharan Africa, working to create community-centered solutions to development challenges throughout the region. WPI’s new MS for science & technology for innovation in global development continues this work in the curriculum, teaching cross-cultural design thinking and new problem-solving approaches to bring technology into the humanitarian space. Telliel says the MS is designed to help build a pipeline for PIT careers in the international development sector.

WPI is also working to build PIT capacity and institutional collaboration at the local level, coordinating with area universities including Quinsigamond Community College to build a Worcester PIT Alliance.

With initiatives touching communities around Worcester and across the globe, and PIT projects and programs incorporating a set of disciplines just as vast, WPI is a national leader in integrating technology and public service disciplines. This expertise is a great asset to the network as other Network members—from fellow technical universities to liberal arts colleges—look to collaborate and build the PIT community.