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 Prism@asee.org.