PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
Teaching Toolbox
On Campus
Globalizing America's Future Engineers

By Cornelia F. Mutel

Some students complete their spring finals, only to get on a plane and begin another far more grueling--and enjoyable--academic experience. Their class? A two-week foreign travel seminar designed to introduce participants to water resource projects in other countries. "International Perspectives in Water Resources Planning," a 3-semester-hour class offered by the University of Iowa's Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR), is intended to help students learn how other countries manage this important resource by examining the roles that things such as culture, politics, the environment and economy play in the decision- making process.

Globalizing America's Future Engineers

Engineering student Owen Kubit at the Nukia Dam in Japan
"You don't learn those things in the classroom," says Owen Kubit, who traveled to Taiwan and Japan in the spring of 1999. Kubit, a 28-year-old hydraulic engineer who formerly worked as a civil engineering consultant in California, will be completing his master's degree this May and leaving immediately for two years of voluntary service as a water resources engineer in Ghana.

He's looking forward to entering the international arena. "It's more exciting than working in the U.S.," he says, "since the sites and projects are always different and I enjoy travel. Also, the projects are larger." Kubit didn't realize how large, however, until he visited Nukia Dam, under construction in Japan. Such dams are reminiscent of those constructed in the United States much earlier in the 20th century. Kubit can learn the technical aspects of such dams in the classroom, but he credits the course for sensitizing him to other dam-related issues, such as the politics involved when resettling residents living in future reservoir basins. He hopes to combine his budding sensitivity to the multiple ramifications of such projects with specific knowledge about U.S. dam-building efforts, so that he can make better decisions on the job.

Jennifer Holman-Dodds, another International Perspectives traveler to Taiwan and Japan (as well as to India in 1998), plans one day to share her insights into the globalization of engineering and its impacts on varied cultures as a professor. A 30-year-old civil engineer who is emphasizing hydrology and water resources in her doctoral work, this native South Dakotan was dumbfounded by the extremes of the sites she visited abroad. In Taiwan, for example, she wondered at the enormous, turbulent rivers carrying large sediment loads down extremely steep gradients, passing through densely populated flood plains--where habitable land is so scarce that people live within cement levees that are vacated during flooding. "Proportions were strangely skewed, with unbelievable extremes and scales of measurements," she says, describing cement stabilization blocks eight feet on a side that bounce down flooding rivers like pebbles. She credits the travel seminars with showing her how engineering affects the lives and futures of people with very different priorities and assumptions from her own--for example, how water distribution schemes in India are focused on providing a basic drinking water supply, rather than a "luxury" such as electricity.

Nearly two dozen students from disciplines such as civil and mechanical engineering, biology, and geography have passed through the program since its inception in 1997, and student evaluations of the program have been overwhelmingly positive. A number of factors have contributed to this success. "First, you need to select your field with care. Water development is a basic need around the globe," says V. C. Patel, director of IIHR and mechanical engineering professor, who initiated the program. "Next, good professional contacts with the nation you are visiting are crucial." IIHR is ideally positioned here, since many of its foreign graduates have returned to their homelands, attained positions of respect, and now are eager to welcome students of their alma mater.

Graduate students from the host country are selected to travel with the American students and faculty throughout the seminar. This one-on-one pairing encourages ongoing education through immediate and frank discussion of the students' observations. It also makes the trip a learning experience for both groups of students, and is considered one of the most significant aspects of the program.

This year's trip to China will include an environmental law professor and her students--as well as Jennifer and other program repeats who now are determined to get the most out of their international education before putting it to work for the benefit of others.

On Campus
Ambassadors of Engineering

By Kelly Gordon

Ambassadors of EngineeringEvery few weeks, dozens of engineering students from nearby Marquette University pour into fifth-grade science classes in Milwaukee's public school system. But this is not a part-time job, and the students don't receive academic credit for their efforts. They are volunteers, devoting a little of their time to teaching inner-city kids the basic science concepts that engineers use every day, and in the process, trying to interest them in engineering as a career.  Not many of the 11-year-olds have given any thought to someday becoming engineers. For the most part, they have only heard about "maintenance engineers" who help keep their school buildings operating smoothly. But the youngsters do start thinking about it after they are exposed through simple demonstrations to the high-tech and high-paying world of civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.

Year after year, one of the favorite demonstrations involves magnets. A 200-pound magnet powered by a single D-cell battery is used in a tug-of-war game between teams of fifth graders, which allows them to see the power of the massive magnet and leads to a discussion about how magnetism works.

Bill Brower, a materials science professor, started the program 10 years ago with the notion that inner-city schools offer an untapped source of potential engineers. He recognized that youngsters need to be recruited early to get them on the "college prep" track for math and science. While high school outreach programs are useful, he says, they are missing many capable engineering candidates who are not on the college track. By sixth or seventh grade, students are either in college prep math, science, and English, or they're not. If not, they are never exposed to the basics of engineering, such as calculus and physics.

"Kids come in and experience whatever we are demonstrating; it's very hands-on," says Brower. "For electricity, the fifth graders make a simple electrical circuit from a kit. Then they are shown how elec trical engineers would draw the circuit. They get an idea of how electricity flows."

There are currently more than 60 students in the program, covering about 25 percent of Milwaukee's fifth grade classes. Up to eight times per year, two-person teams recruited from all levels of the college of engineering visit science classes and demonstrate basic science concepts, such as light, sound, and electricity.

"The kids are getting to see and use materials and technology they wouldn't normally have in a fifth-grade classroom, especially an inner-city one,"says Brower. "Dioramas of dinosaurs are a poor substitute for teaching hard science subjects like electricity and simple machines, but without funding, teachers often have few options."

For the first eight years, Brower operated the program without any funding or staff. But now with financial support coming from three local organizations--the Fleck Foundation, Marquette Medical Systems Foundation, and Herzfeld Foundation--he has been able to hire a coordinator and recruit and train more engineering students.

The current volunteer coordinator, Janet Banhidi, is also a former program participant. A college senior majoring in civil engineering and Spanish, she says "I have no specific interest in teaching, but to be able to generate an interest in science is very rewarding."

"We did an experiment about volume versus pressure, in which we put marshmallows in a bell jar and then created a vacuum,"says Banhidi. "Because of the differences in pressure, the marshmallows explode. When the kids see this, their eyes get wide and they start asking a lot of questions." The program has been successful on two fronts. Not only are Marquette students helping to get kids more interested in math and science, they are bringing the next generation of engineers into the fold.

    Kelly Gordon is a Prism editorial intern

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