Simanaitis Says

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ICELAND, WPI, AND THE PLAN

I REGRET THAT my undergraduate years at Worcester Polytechnic Institute were before The Plan. My graduation coincided with the 100th anniversary of this solidly traditional engineering school “founded on a pedlar’s dream” in 1865.

Today, The Plan, established in 1970, is “a proven and highly effective model for undergraduate learning that’s both adaptable and rigorous.” WPI notes, “Through The Plan, you learn how to learn by applying your classroom experience in projects that challenge you from proficiency, social, and global perspective.”

How The Plan Works. Instead of traditional semesters, WPI’s academic year has seven-week terms, four in the traditional academic year and two during optional summer attendance. “Taking three courses a term,” WPI says, “creates space for the cooperative, open-ended project work at the core of the WPI PLAN.” Also, taking fewer courses at a time gives students opportunity for more intensive engagement in each one.

WPI stresses “Theory and Practice, not Theory then Practice.” It also notes “Our 97-percent first-year retention rate (cited by The New York Times) is among the highest in the nation.”

The Plan’s latest iteration includes a Global Projects Program, and the Fall 2019 issue of WPI Journal has an article on Iceland’s involvement.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt in WPI Journal, Fall 2019.

I’ve visited this North Atlantic country back in 2006, so learning of WPI’s presence there has dual interest for me.

Iceland and Renewables. Iceland lies at the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. However, it has profited from this potential instability through exploitation of geothermal energy. The country is rich in hydro power too.

Because of this and despite its size (about the same as Ohio), Iceland ranks ninth in the world’s top ten aluminum exporters. (The U.S. just misses this list.) The smelting of aluminum is particularly energy-intensive. In fact, Iceland’s abundance of inexpensive electricity makes it economically feasible to import aluminum bauxite ore from antipodal portions of the globe.

Iceland’s geothermal wealth also translates into Reykjavik streets and sidewalks being heated through recycling of its hot-water home heating.

The country has also been at the forefront of advanced technology involving hydrogen fuel cells. One goal is a phased conversion of its diesel-powered fishing fleet to fuel-cell electric power. The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking writes that Iceland is on the road to sustainable transport: “The target is to have 40 percent of transport energy needs sourced through renewables by 2030.”

Montage by Tim Barker from R&T, November 2006. Note the Vetnisstöð.

The Plan, Phase 1. WPI’s initial seven-week projects in Iceland were free of any formal sponsorship of a local nature. Twelve participating students worked in three specific areas. One team assessed local reactions, stories, and lessons learned with regard to climate change. Another developed means of monitoring microplastic pollution on Icelandic shores. And, in anticipation of future projects, the third team investigated potential sponsorship by Iceland’s tourism industry, Reykjavik’s municipal bus system, museums, and other local nonprofit organizations.

Followup Projects. The next group of students arrive in Reykjavik later this year. According to WPI Journal, “… there are six confirmed sponsors waiting for them, all stemming from the project—they actually ended up having to turn some sponsors away due to the overwhelming interest.”

Were I a member of WPI’s class of 2020, 2021, 2022, or 2023, I’d be up for another Reykjavik adventure. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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