MITRE-WPI "Collaboratory" Brings a New Way of Learning to Campus

April 2017
Topics: Systems Engineering, Computing and Information Systems Management, Communications Technology (General)
The strong ties between MITRE and Worcester Polytechnic Institute just got stronger, thanks to an innovative laboratory/collaborative space. It's helping to address sponsors’ complex challenges while students gain valuable hands-on research experience.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Professor Alex Wyglinski's sabbatical leave at MITRE has turned into what he termed a "win-win" for the college and the company. He and his MITRE host, Principal Engineer Joe Chapman, developed a strong working relationship that led to the opening of a hybrid laboratory/collaborative space—or "collaboratory"—at the school's Worcester, Massachusetts, campus.

The MITRE/WPI Collaboratory opened in November 2016.

"My sabbatical focused on getting a government or industry perspective for my work," says Wyglinski, now director of the Collaboratory and WPI associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.  "I wanted to take my immersion in MITRE and the new methodologies I learned back to WPI and help build a bridge between the two institutions."  

Partnership Thrives

MITRE and WPI have a long history that's been strengthened with the opening of the Collaboratory. The company has had a strong connection to the college since the 1980s—and hires many WPI graduates. Chapman says one-fourth of his department consists of WPI graduates.    

"The MITRE/WPI Collaboratory is the hub of collaboration between MITRE and WPI. It's a slice of MITRE at WPI for incubating and conducting new research," Chapman says.

He adds, "Having dedicated space on WPI's campus fosters increased collaboration among MITRE staff and WPI students and faculty. It also helps MITRE maintain a pipeline of highly qualified potential hires with specialized expertise." 

Students get practical, hands-on experience and advice from seasoned professionals at MITRE. In turn, MITRE staffers gain knowledge and ideas from the students. MITRE employees supervise and mentor the students. Students can also suggest ideas.

"The value to students is they now have a space on campus that's a portal into the MITRE world," Wyglinski says. "It's a place where faculty and students come together and students can get practical experience outside the classroom.” He adds, “The collaboration gives students access to substantial research on everything from data science and cybersecurity to wireless communications and embedded technologies."

Collaboratory Projects

The Collaboratory, in WPI's Atwater-Kent building, includes a study area, office space for projects, and telecommuting and lab space for projects that are suited to WPI's campus.

Several projects are already underway.

For example, two WPI students have been working on a vehicle cybersecurity project. Using a model of the electrical system of a popular commercial passenger vehicle, they demonstrated how the car's systems can be hacked, and they're developing methods for detecting and halting the attack.  

Wyglinski says another project focuses on devising a prototype capable of confusing radar so that it’s unable to correctly detect objects. And a third is looking at cybersecurity from the perspective of protecting a server from malicious attacks.

"We have a sophomore computer science student working on this project," he adds. "It came about when a MITRE project manager with a military background approached me because he wanted to be involved in mentoring a student."

Opportunities for Students

Chapman says MITRE and WPI have "some fantastic ways to attract top-tier students."

They include:

  • Independent Studies: Chapman solicits project ideas from MITRE employees who act as mentors and Wyglinski matches WPI students with the projects.    
  • Major Qualifying Projects: These are MITRE-sponsored senior design projects. Students perform the work at MITRE over a 10-week period spanning from late summer into fall.  
  • 5th year BS/MS Sponsorship: This competitive program is available to top students enrolled in WPI's five year BS/MS program. MITRE sponsors the fifth year of tuition and the sponsored student gets to perform thesis research on a MITRE project in collaboration with WPI faculty.

"The MITRE/WPI Collaboratory builds upon the strong bridge between the two institutions," says WPI alum and MITRE Senior Vice President and Director of Bedford Operations, Pete Sherlock. "It opens up new ways for MITRE to work in partnership with the WPI faculty and student body to bring world-class talent from academia to bear on our sponsors' most critical challenges."

By Blair Gately

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