Institute Park as an Engineering Laboratory

An exhibit demonstrating how Institute Park was used as an egineering laboratory and how it became a point of interest and social interaction among WPI, the city of Worcester and other social factors.

Early 1970's - new begginings

Institute Park has been historically connected to the city of Worcester, a connection which dates to the 1880's and has strong associations with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Being originally an ordinary farm field and pasture, it was donated by the prominent Stephen Salisbury III in 1887 as a park to supply a green space for the students and citizens of Worcester. The Salisburies were a family of local industrial and civic life leaders, and were huge benefactors, charity donators and local supporters of the city of Worcester in numerous aspects of the Worcester city life, till the death of the last of the Salisbury lineage, Salisbury the third, in 1951.

Salisbury III not only donated the original 18 acres of the park, but also erected the additional improvement features, which included the boathouse, walking trails around the pond, Norse Tower, a bridge that stood for many years to connect to an island in the pond, and some others.

From its humble beginnings as a pasture, Institute Park has been transformed into an ideal city park. It is arguably the city's most attractive park, as relaxation awaits those who wish to escape the everyday mundane city life. Institute Park is a multi-purpose space, as it currently encompasses two monuments, a bandstand (the Sneiderman Pavilion) which hosts concerts throughout the summer, walking trails for hikers and nature goers, and three tennis courts for tennis sports fans.

So, how did Institute Park start getting involved with WPI? How did it all start? How were students using the park as an engineering laboratory?

Silent Spring Book

Silent Spring Book with Rachael Carson

The time period that changes started occurring both in the country and WPI, was the mid-1960's and early 1970's. This period was a period of major shifts in the two driving forces that shaped the beginning of interaction between Institute Park and WPI; the conception of the WPI plan and the environmental movement in the United States. 

The rise of the environmental movement in the USA can be accredited to many widely publicized events in the 1960s and the 1970s. These events included the hydrogen bomb testing on Bikini Atoll, oil spills off of the coast of California, and the use of insecticides and other chemicals. In the 1960s, the pollution of the Great Lakes helped push environmentalism into the public consciousness through increased media publicity. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, American environmental awareness started to rise. First, people were worried about traditional natural preservation issues and disasters, fires, oil spills and others, that raised public environmental awareness. In June of 1962, Rachel Carson, also regarded by many as the mother of the environmental movement, published the book "Silent Spring", bringing the issue of environmental destruction to the attention of the public. The book "Silent Spring" focused on the impact of DDT (a chemical pesticide) and other insecticides on animal species, especially birds. Specifically, the endangerment of the bald eagle garnered particular media and public attention, since the bald eagle is the United States symbol. This type of concerns to laws such as the Endangered Species Act.

Simultaneously, people were concerned about how environmental destruction could cause public health threats. Two areas of concern were air and water pollution. These concerns led to significant environmental acts that formed the legislative basis for pollution regulations. The 1970 Clean Air Act tackled air pollution and allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to establish air quality standards in order to safeguard the public. The 1972 Clean Water Act provided the basic legislation framework on water regulations in the US. This act regulates water quality and also how pollutants are discharged in water. 


WPI student letter complaint

Students addressing WPI administration to complain for the academic and politcal environment

The late 1960's and early 1970's was also a period of big changes for WPI, not only the US environmental movement. After years of change and conflict, WPI officials decided to turn their university academic curriculum from a traditional exam-based system to a project-oriented one. That was the beginning of the WPI plan, which was an undergraduate student schedule that incorporated interactive projects, like the MQP and IQP, as graduation requirement for all students. The MQP is the “Major Qualifying Project”, which is like the senior thesis on the specific major of the student; and the IQP is the “Interactive Qualifying Project” a more general research project where the student explores a social issue of from a wide range of topics. The important feature of these projects is that they are supposed to be socially engaging, namely the students should produce a research project that has a direct social or 'real-world' impact ; e.g. Design a control system for an autonomous car, design a sensor for a firefighter's suit, or in our case, design a bridge for Salisbury Pond.

But how was this change driven? WPI was different in the past than it is now and different before the changes started in 1970; First of all, at some point it was the undergraduate studies were a three-year program, the university was called "Worcester Tech" and it had a very low tuition - it was almost free. The most singnificant aspect is that up till the late 1960's, the academic environment at WPI was stiff. The political and social environment was also characterized by many (as shown in the complaint letter) as restrictive and not 'free enough'. The last paragraph of the student complaint clearly shows the environment at the time; WPI was competitive, academically traditional, conservative, exam-based and according to the students it did not stimulate "voluntary and free thinking".  

The voices of the students were heard. After years of planning, WPI president Hazzard started the implementation of the WPI plan in June 1970, which as described above, it turned the traditional environment into a project-based real-world learning approach. 

Therefore, we can see that two very powerful forces started acting on the WPI environment from the early 1970's; the environmental movement and the WPI plan which was essentially a project-based approach learning.

The first pinnacle project - 1973 Salisbury Pond cleanup

News Article - Salisbury Pond Task Force

Task Force request to WPI 

News Article - Salisbury Pond Task Force

Call for salisbury pond cleanup

One of the first projects that incorporated environmental and social needs with a student project-based engineering learning was the 1973 "Salisbury cleanup research project". It had a 'social and engineering' aspect as outlined by the WPI plan, and it was a large-scale research project made in 1973 by students of the Civil Engineering Department of WPI. In my opinion it is one of the most prominent examples of projects of this type. This is because it involved collaborations between city officials, prominent citizens and WPI students for the sake of Institute Park, a common social and environmental concern. In the early 1970’s (up till 1972), citizens of Worcester called the creation of the “Salisbury Pond task force”, a team managed by city officials, industry and business representatives and other people interested in the state of the pond, whose task would be to cleanup the once clean pond, from pollution. The pond had been polluted with sediment, plastic and other pollutants for 40 years by nearby industries, factories and general public disinterest. 

There are specifically many news articles of the time that have been written for that particular matter, all from March 1974. They are all written about one year after the end of WPI’s project and they all state and explain, how the Salisbury Task Force must use WPI’s report’s suggestions and results to improve the quality of the pond and how the force must raise 75,000 $. So, the Salisbury Task Force collaborated with WPI in order for a whole research project to take place specifically for the cleanup of Salisbury Pond, all executed by WPI engineering students.

Salisbury Pond water quality map

Water quality locations, Salisbury Pond.

Restoration of Salisbury Pond research project

Title page of research report.

Salisbury Pond sample water quality studies

water quality studies

The project was also a fine example of engineering work happening on Salisbury Pond. The report was mainly divided in two sections. In the first section, students made an extensive analysis on the water quality of the pond, and an extensive analysis on the methods that can be used in order to measure the water quality of the pond; they found out the water quality of the pond is class ‘D’. They took numerous water samples from different places on the pond, they measured a large number of ingredients and they measure sources of inflows and outflows on the river; a process that lasted months and involved hands-on work on the Pond. They included maps to specify the points of the river they made the measurements, hydrographs and tests on 20+ parameters, including PH, dissolved oxygen, and more. Extensive analysis of the results is also included, with numerous graphs, diagrams and ingredients distribution.

In the second section, the students suggested measures in order to improve, control, monitor and maintain the water quality for an extended period of time.  The recommendations included the stop of domestic sewage dump in the pond, monitor of heavy metals from a specific point in the lake, dredging, street cleaning and more. The section included analytical maps and design graphs of each recommendation. Therefore students did a whole hands-on engineering research project. I belive that this project was the most complete engineering project of WPI related to Institute Park, because it was done in collaboration with Worcester Authorities and some of the suggestions were actually implemented by the Task Force. However, as noted above, this project did not have a mere engineering aspect, but a social one as well; the goal was to clean up the Pond, a social and environmental request.

News article - Salisbury Pond Task Force Prominent people gazing at Salisbury Pond

Prominent people gazing at Salisbury Pond.

The project was completed after the request made by the 'Salisbury Task Force', which was later called to implement the project's suggestions. This project not only showed how Institute Park became a social and engineering laboratory for WPI students, but how it also became the meeting point between city officials, citizens and the university, with a common goal of cleaning up the pond; a place of common environmental interest. Institue park became the center of engineering, local, social and environmental concern for the entire Worcester and WPI community.

From all the above, it is clear that this project enhanced the connection between Institute Park and WPI. Students were voluntarily involved in a real social issue and they provided a scientific solution. The connection enhancement is clear since we can also see a series of pictures where WPI fraternity memeber clean the Institute Park or they build improvement facilities. They care to improve the condition of the park and that is why they are actively involved in its maintenance. The fraternity pictures are not directly related to the reseach project that I described, but they are from about the same time and they show the connection between WPI and Institute Park; a social and environmental gesture.

Continued Engineering Work

So after the first engineering project on Institute Park in 1973 which I described in the previous section, did other projects happen? How did the engineering work continue on Institute Park? After extensive research on all the available reports, I came to the conclusion that Institute Park plays a very significant role in educating engineering students at WPI.

I will first provide some statistics I collected from examining all the available project reports, which show the importance of Institute Park for a range of research projects. Since 1970, there have been a total of twenty four engineering and research projects done at or for Institute Park. About half of them (around fourteen) are concerned specifically with Salsibsury Pond and the rest with Institute Park in general. About one third of them (around nine), use Institute Park as a resource or component for a bigger project and all the rest directly study Institute Park. Most of them are MQP's (about thirteen), and the rest are IQP's (about seven), GPS projects (three) and one master's thesis.

The fact that the majority of the projects are engineering MQP's, means that Institute Park is a very resourceful place for engineering students, since the MQP is the senior thesis graduation requirement for every student. Almost all the projects are done by students from the Departments of Civil & Environmental Engineering or the Biology & Biotechnology Department. Many projects have a recurring theme, which means that they are about a similar topic of a previous project; the most common topics are the "Construction of a bridge in Salisbury Pond" and the "Cleanup of Salisbury Pond", but there are also other projects like "Exploring the parking expansion in WPI".

IP - Salisbury Pond - Bridge Design

Location of potential bridge

In order to illustrate the high quality of engineering work that can take place at Institute Park, I will provide one example of an engineering project that was completed by WPI students. It is about the construction of a pedestrian bridge in Salisbury Pond.

The most recent pedestrian bridge MQP was done for a different reason than other bridge construction MQP's (which aimed just to restore the old bridge of Salisbury Pond that has been destroyed over time). The students aimed to construct a bridge to facilitate the commute of WPI students that had to cross Institute park in order to travel from Salisbury estates (on one side of the pond/lake) to Goddard hall (to the other side of the lake); that is how the location of the bridge was different than previous MQP's suggestions. Also, in the this MQP the students wanted to explore an alternative to traditional concrete and they investigated and compared the use of a Sandwich Structured Composite, which proved to be lighter and more cost-efficient than traditional reinforced concrete; this alternative material essentially revolutionized the traditional processes of bridge construction that were used by other MQP’s.

Sandwich structure Bridge Design - sketch

Scientific design of bridge components

Sandwich structure Bridge Design - cost

Cost estimate of bridge design

During the project, students followed and applied all engineering principles they learnt during their studies. They made a complete site analysis, analyzing the soil, water and general topography and then they made a full structural analysis of the bridge design. They specifically examined and compared two bridge designs, the traditional reinforced concrete one and a new one they suggested with a sandwich structure composite slab. They implemented the whole bridge design, material selection and the cost estimate for the two options and provided their own suggestion based on their results.

As the previous illustration shows, Institute Park is still properly used an engineering laboratory. I cannot provide an explanation for every project, however as the statistics I provided prove, there have been numerous other projects on Institute Park, and most of them are engineering ones like the ones I just described. Their topics range from a pedestrian bridge design, to fish population genetics studies and the design of a bike network system or parking space expansion; they are all related to Institute Park. 

Review & Looking into the future

IP view - postcard

Institute Park view from a postcard

It is clear that Institute Park has a very strong interaction with the engineering department of WPI. WPI students have used Institute Park and Salisbury Pond for a wide range of projects on many topics. If we summarize the main themes and topics of all the projects I described above (which made use of Institute Park) we would come up with the following list of themes:

  • Pedestrian Bridge construction in Salisbury Pond
  • Restoration or cleanup of Salisbury Pond
  • Exploring a water quality control system to mitigate pollution effects on Salisbury Pond
  • Crayfish species population studies in Salisbury Pond (history, demographics and genetics of the species)
  • History of Institute Park
  • Parking space expansion in WPI
  • A bike network in Worcester
  • Proposed, but unbuilt buildings in WPI

The first four in particular are recurring topics as they have been explored multiple times over the years. The rest are single topics. From the above, we can see that Institute Park has been and still is an actual engineering laboratory for WPI students. As described in the previous section, students did hands-on engineering work in Institute Park; they collected themselves crayfish from the pond, they went out and measured distances in pond to build a bridge, they examine different materials on the soil of the pond. And then, they used research and engineering methods to evaluate the results and propose solutions (e.g. one bridge design over another).

Many of the projects have also arguably attempted to solve local, social and environmental problems, building on their social aspect. The bridge design aims to solve commute problems for students or improve the aesthetics of the park. The Salisbury Pond restoration projects aim to solve a long-standing issue of water pollution in the pond. The 2003 IQP report for the history of Institute Park involved collaborations and interviews with city officials and the Worcester Museum staff. Moreover, the frequency of the projects related to Institute Park has also not gone down. Since the first such project in 1973, we get about the same number of projects related to Institute Park, every decade thereafter (e.g. in the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's, etc.). There has been a steady and relatively constant interest in Institute Park throughout the years, from as many as 50 years ago (starting in 1973) and as recent as this year (2019 bridge design MQP).

However, in my opinion no project has been as socially and locally involved as the first 1973 Salisbury Pond cleanup research project “Restoration of Salisbury Pond”. That project responded to real current issue of the time that was also circulating in the newspapers. Students did not just "fulfill" a graduation requirement like the MQP or the IQP, they wholeheartedly responded to a real local city problem. In addition, many projects have been on similar topics than older ones. The pedestrian bridge theme has been appearing very frequently over the decades, as well as the "Salisbury Pond cleanup" issue. There is a need to refresh the needs of the city and update the projects theme repositories. Most importantly, even though many projects tackle a social issue and sometimes they collaborate with Worcester city authorities - like in the 2003 IQP report where students interviewed city officials to inquire about the history of Institute Park , sometimes there is a feeling that the general social interaction and bonding is not as strong and appealing as in the 1973 project; 

In conclusion, I believe the current level of engineering and socially involving work done at Institute Park by WPI students is satisfactory, however it has a lot of room for improvement. There is a need for new problems, and new types of projects that are more socially involving and not just alternate repetitions of old projects and issues. There is a need to reinvigorate strong collaboration relations between the city of Worcester and WPI students; perhaps new needs could come up; different building construction needs at the Institute Park could be revealed (not just the bridge) and many more that we are currently unaware. 

IP view

Institute Park view

Institute Park can be not only an engineering lab, but also a driving force of both social and engineering innovation; it can be the meeting point of engineers, the environment, and society.


Primary Sources:

Landry T., John and Cruikshank L., Jeffrey. “True to Plan: Crafting an Education Revolution Beneath the Two Towers”. WPI, 2015. Print.

“Pond Analysis was WPI Project”. Telegram Worcester, March 3 1974. WPI Archives & Special Collections. Print.

McLaughlin, Brennan and Nelson, Robert and Helen Weimerskirch. “Restoration of Salisbury Pond”. Research Project 1973. Worcester Polytechnic Institute Archives and Special Collections. Accessed April 3,2019.

Da Silva, Alisa and Yap-Chung, Zebadiah. “Pedestrian Bridge in Institute Park using Sandwich Structured Composite”. Structural Design Major Qualifying Project March 2019. Digital WPI Major Qualifying Projects collection. Accessed April 5, 2019.

Secondary Sources:

Freed, Lawrence. “Get ‘Sedimentary’ for Salisbury”. 16 Jan. 2016. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019 <>.

Kaufman, Casey E. Davis. “Climate Change Conversations: Causes, Impacts, Solutions”. American Archive. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019 <>.

 “The Modern Environmental Movement”. American Experience. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019  <>.