Santa Fe New Mexican | April 4, 2010

Massachusetts Undergrads Team up with Middle Schoolers to Rethink Traffic Corridor

Staci Matlock | April 4, 2010

East met West earlier this week in more ways than one when several DeVargas Middle School students took time out of class to learn some real-world techniques for data collection from eight Massachusetts college students.

Their work might one day benefit the city of Santa Fe, which is considering a couple of long-range ideas for revamping St. Michaels Drive and creating a municipal-owned power utility.

The middle school students are part of Project GUTS (Growing Up Thinking Scientifically), one of 28 such programs in the state hosted by the Santa Fe Institute that encourage young women and men to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers.

The middle schoolers were helping students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute gather photos, surveys and other data. The WPI students, who hail from China, Vietnam and the Eastern U.S., are putting together multilayer digital reports analyzing different options for a St. Michaels Drive makeover and a city-owned utility. Theyre working out of the Santa Fe Complex, a building on Agua Fría Street where scientists, artists and other innovators collaborate on projects.

Before graduation, WPI expects its students to tackle some real-world projects, often in fields completely different from the ones they are studying. The college has 20 centers around the world in places such as Namibia, Venice, Bangkok and the slums of Cape Town, South Africa, according to Fabio Carrera, director of the Santa Fe Project Center for the college. The Santa Fe Complex is the newest domestic center to form a partnership with WPI, one of only three in the United States.

Engineering and science students can tend to see everything in black and white, Carrera said, noting the centers give them an opportunity to work on real problems.

The college students, in teams of four, are working on two reports for the city; next year a new group will work on seven Santa Fe projects, Carrera said.

The city has talked about owning its own power company and redesigning St. Michaels Drive, but both are still in the very early planning stages. The WPI team is testing out a new way of linking a lot of data together for such projects. Theyre using a software program developed at the Santa Fe Complex for ambient computing, which allows them to project multiple pieces of data at the same time on different walls of the room. The technology makes it possible for a variety of professionals working on a project to share, view and change data at the same time.

To demonstrate, WPI student Ho Fong Leung pointed a laser light at a map projected on the wall of Santa Fes utility grid and drew a circle around a portion. Instantly a chart showing the number of power poles and substations popped up on another wall. He clicked on a different spot on the map, and a weather chart for solar and wind lighted up on a third wall. He used the laser pen to click and change information in the charts.

The WPI electricity team is cataloguing all the parts of the existing electricity grid around Santa Fe from poles to power lines. DeVargas students had a chance to visit a substation and map out some of the system. The WPI team is creating charts showing the costs of various energy sources and how much electricity could be generated from options such as solar and wind power on any given day, according to Joel Altman, a junior in aerospace engineering.

The WPI St. Michaels team went out with DeVargas students to survey residents and collect other information about the road, one of Santa Fes major corridors. Theyll be analyzing six different scenarios for the street and how each impacts walkability, public spaces and other factors. The scenarios were created by Santa Fe architects and the public last year.

Kristen Leigher, a pre-medical student at WPI, said eventually the report will provide the city with information about the actual effects of different design choices — for example, how the removal of curb cuts in different sections of the street affect pedestrians.

The WPI students said residents and DeVargas students surveyed Tuesday shared one similar concern about St. Michaels Drive that surprised them — the level of gang activity, graffiti and crime along the corridor.

The WPI students will be in Santa Fe until May 2 and will work with the DeVargas Project GUTS students once a week on the city projects. One of the middle schoolers will even translate the survey into Spanish. Theyre essential to us figuring out what is wrong with St. Michaels and how it can be different, said WPI engineering student Jack Mulhern.

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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican