PRISM Magazine - January 2003
High Tech Hunting
Engineers for all Seasons
Shrinking Assets
On Politics
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Last Word
Back Issues

Last Word

- By Paul Davis and Natalie Mello

Today's engineering students have come of age in a shrinking world. About half have traveled internationally with their families, and nearly all have studied a foreign language in high school. According to a poll conducted by the American Council on Education and the Arts & Sciences Group, the goals of almost half of those students explicitly include internships and work experience abroad. Yet 97 percent of engineering graduates will leave college without ever studying or working in another country. Part of the reason is that an overstuffed engineering curriculum makes getting that international experience almost impossible.

But that doesn't have to be the case. For more than thirty years Worcester Polytechnic Institute has offered its engineering students real-world international opportunities as part of its degree requirements. In the last decade and a half, WPI's reach has expanded to locations as diverse as Bangkok, London, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, and Namibia. These experiences challenge students to tackle real problems, working alongside practicing professionals, and guided by faculty advisors in settings far from WPI's classrooms.

There are a number of lofty reasons for imparting global understanding and some important practical ones as well. ABET, funding agencies, and the corporations that hire engineers have multiple expectations for our graduates: an appreciation of the larger world in which they operate; an understanding of the impact their professional decisions have on society; and experience in a culture other than their own.

Existing programs can be re-engineered to better promote global awareness. Here are some suggestions; some echo those from the ACE StudentPoll and all are well-established at WPI.

You might consider offering an alternative to the one-year study abroad program. Shipping engineering students off for an entire year leaves them with course-fulfillment problems. When faced with the year-long option, many turn away from its complexity. Other possibilities include a semester, an eight-week half semester, a summer program or a term-break program. Of course, this might require revising current requirements so that students can complete some of their degree requirements overseas. In Thailand, for example, students may well be able to meet general education requirements while preparing to work on an engineering problem. Other university departments can be helpful, such as combining a credit for Spanish with an engineering internship in Central America.

Your goal should be to offer programs that require real-world problem solving while students are thinking—and living—in other cultures. Working alongside professionals far from home can provide an irreplaceable experience with problem context no longer an abstraction.

An important part of our program is offering alternatives to Western Europe. WPI students complete projects in places like Costa Rica, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Namibia, as well as Denmark, Switzerland, England, and Australia. Students who've studied a foreign language may be drawn to study in the country where they already know a little of the language, but this shouldn't be the only factor for deciding on a particular place. Students can go almost anywhere if they're prepared with basic communications skills. Those include what to expect culturally and how not to offend their hosts.

It's important to offer plenty of financial options so that as many students as possible can participate. Perhaps financial aid can be extended to cover the added expense of sending students overseas. There may also be sponsors in the local community who can help.

Finally, you can generate student interest in international learning by holding annual fairs, which involve previous student participants in open house presentations. Those kinds of activities can get students asking each other, "When are you going abroad?"

The past year has changed our understanding of America's place in the world. We who teach are obligated to bring those lessons to our students, to provide them what has been missing so long from most engineering curricula—an international experience that will truly prepare them for the world they will enter.


Paul Davis is dean of the interdisciplinary and global studies division at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Natalie Mello is director of global affairs.
They can be reached at