Prism Magazine - March 2003
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America's Newest Export

- By Alvin P. Sanoff    

U.S. engineering schools are gradually venturing into the global marketplace - setting up shop in countries such as France, Greece, Singapore, and even China.

The globalization of business is taken for granted in 21st-century America. U.S. firms have built plants and established offices throughout the world, and foreign enterprises have set up major facilities in this country. Autos, software, cellphones, soft drinks—the list of industries that have become global goes on and on.

But while business has become internationalized, the same cannot be said of education. Although foreign students flock to study in this country, American universities, for the most part, have been hesitant to move in the opposite direction and offer education outside the nation's borders. The obstacles—cultural, financial, logistical—have seemed daunting. Moreover, innovation does not come easily to institutions of higher education, which are reluctant to depart from traditional ways of doing business.

Attitudes, however, have gradually been shifting as schools conclude that there are opportunities abroad and that the obstacles are not insurmountable. Engineering schools are among those gradually venturing into the global marketplace, although only a small number of schools have taken the plunge.

Three institutions that have been among the most visibly and engaged in foreign ventures: The Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. All have established master's degree programs abroad. Each has taken a distinctive approach to exporting its educational wares and developed relationships in different places.

Parlez-vous Engineering?

The Georgia Tech program is the granddaddy of the three. Started in 1990 as a pilot project in the Lorraine region of France, it initially enrolled just five students in a master's program in electrical engineering. Thirteen years later, Georgia Tech Lorraine has burgeoned to 240 students enrolled in two master's programs—electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering. The satellite school now has its own building in the city of Metz that includes housing for 100 students, and there is talk of expansion.

Hans B. Puttgen, president of Georgia Tech Lorraine and vice chair of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech, says that "a growing number of students realize that an engineering career is global and that they need to be properly prepared. As a result, we have had students who were admitted to MIT and Stanford who chose to go to Georgia Tech Lorraine."

About 60 percent of the students at Lorraine are French, 15 percent come from other foreign countries, and 25 percent are from the United States. To be admitted, students have to go through the same process as those applying to the main campus in Atlanta. The cost and length of the program are the same as on Tech's main campus, and students emerge with a Georgia Tech degree.

The Lorraine students are taught by members of the Georgia Tech faculty. Three faculty members reside in France full time, and a rotating band of four to five others spend a semester at Lorraine. "We have taken a lot of steps to make the transition very easy and convenient for faculty," says Puttgen, who commutes between Atlanta and Lorraine. "We provide completely equipped housing, cars, and travel budgets. Since we started, 55 different faculty members have gone over there. A number have gone back several times." Adds Roger Webb, chair of Georgia Tech's electrical and computer engineering program: "The faculty like to teach there. It offers a change of pace and a different environment."

Students at Georgia Tech Lorraine have the option of enrolling in a double degree program, so that at the end of their studies they emerge with degrees from both Georgia Tech and one of a half dozen French engineering institutions with which Tech has developed partnerships. All French students choose the double degree program and some American students do as well, according to Puttgen. The double degree program takes a minimum of 18 months to complete. U.S. students spend one semester at a French institution. Conversely, French students head across the Atlantic to study for a semester on Georgia Tech's Atlanta campus.

A corporate internship is a component of the dual degree program. Students have interned at such global corporations as Nortel, Boeing, Schlumberger, and Siemens. Puttgen is seeking industrial partners to fund two-person teams of students—one French or from another foreign country and one American—who would work on projects together and do their internships at the company that is funding them. "Companies are very interested because they would have first crack at hiring these youngsters who would have demonstrated their ability to move from one country to another and work in multicultural environments," says Puttgen.

Georgia Tech also operates a lab at Lorraine in partnership with CNRS, the French national research organization. The lab is populated by Georgia Tech and French researchers as well as by 15 doctoral students. Some of the would-be Ph.D.s are pursuing Georgia Tech degrees, others are enrolled at French universities, and a few are in a joint program.

To maximize use of the Lorraine campus, Georgia Tech holds a summer undergraduate program there. About 150 undergraduates attend. "It is the biggest studying abroad program for engineering students that you will find," says Puttgen, who adds that there are plans to expand the program into the regular academic year and open it to students at other American universities that Georgia Tech develops partnerships with.

Puttgen says that Georgia Tech Lorraine has had the ancillary benefit of making the faculty of the Atlanta school "more internationally oriented." But he warns that if a college plans to set up a beachhead abroad it needs to make a serious commitment to the venture. "You cannot do it halfway," he explains. "You need a faculty capable of operating on both sides of the Atlantic and very strong management support all the way up in the university." It also helps to have somebody who is knowledgeable about the local culture.

Georgia Tech Lorraine, which is incorporated under French law as a nonprofit corporation, has benefited from government subsidies. "Various elements of the French government have provided funding," says Webb. "Without that, Georgia Tech Lorraine would not have happened."

Spurred on by its experience in France, Georgia Tech has launched a program in Singapore in industrial and systems engineering that has attracted at least 20 students. The school is also hoping to start a program in Germany in the near future. Further down the road is a possible presence in Latin America. Says Puttgen: "I can confidently say that in engineering education, we are among the most global universities."

Pittsburgh Meets Peania

While Georgia Tech has built quite a presence abroad, Carnegie Mellon and Michigan are still in the early stages of their involvement. The Carnegie Mellon program began last fall as a collaboration with the Athens Information Technology Institute (AIT) in Greece. AIT is located on a new campus in Peania, a few miles from downtown Athens. Twenty-five students, mostly from Greece, are enrolled in the 16-month program, which leads to a master's degree from Carnegie Mellon in information networking, a field that draws on academic expertise in engineering, computer science, and business.

The program came about somewhat unexpectedly. Carnegie Mellon was exploring the possibility of establishing a presence somewhere in Europe when Greek entrepreneur Socrates Kokkalis offered to partner with the Pittsburgh institution. Kokkalis, chief executive officer of Intracom, a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment and information systems, built the AIT campus and provides full scholarships to students, who are charged regular CMU tuition. "People in Europe are not used to paying high tuition," says John Anderson, CMU's engineering dean. "So, the only way for this to work is for the early classes to get significant scholarships and for the program to lead to significant employment."

Students must meet the same admission standards as those who apply for entry to CMU's program in Pittsburgh. To insure that happens, CMU approves all entering students. "Quality control is of the utmost importance," says Pradeep Khosla, head of Carnegie Mellon's electrical and computer engineering department and director of CMU's Information Networking Institute.

Khosla is CMU's liaison with AIT, which is run by an Athens-based dean, Christos Halkias, a former member of the Columbia University engineering faculty who returned to his native Greece to teach. Khosla keeps in frequent touch with Halkias and travels to Athens several times a year to help interview and hire prospective faculty. So far, three faculty members have been selected—Greek nationals who have worked and studied in the U.S.—with another seven to be hired. "Everyone hired is expected to spend a semester at CMU to gain an understanding of our culture and to build collaboration with colleagues in Pittsburgh," says Khosla. He also would like the Athens students to spend time on CMU's main campus and plans to offer scholarships so they can come to Pittsburgh this summer and work on research projects.

AIT's curriculum is the same as that on the Pittsburgh campus, with courses on such subjects as broadband networking and software engineering taught primarily by Carnegie Mellon faculty. Unlike the program at Georgia Tech, most of CMU's teaching is done without faculty members ever leaving home. Lectures are beamed in real-time from classrooms in Pittsburgh to classrooms at AIT. The seven-hour time difference between the United States and Greece has not hampered the real-time transmissions. "Europeans end their day late," says Khosla, "so it has worked out well."

Thus far, the Athens-based faculty members mainly provide mentoring and support. "For every course we teach from Pittsburgh," says Khosla, "we have a faculty counterpart in Athens" working with the students. But that supporting role will gradually change. As more faculty members are hired in Greece and acculturated to CMU's ways, they will begin to teach. For now, CMU faculty members are taking the lead.

When a number of the Athens students encountered difficulty with a lab assignment, a faculty member from Pittsburgh flew to Greece for a week to assist them. While in Athens, she continued to teach her students on CMU's main campus, only this time the Pittsburgh students were on the receiving end of the television transmission. Khosla anticipates that one member of the CMU faculty will go to Athens each semester to teach, with that faculty member's courses transmitted back to students in Pittsburgh in a reversal of the current process.

If the venture succeeds, CMU expects to offer master's degrees in other communications-related fields to students at AIT. Carnegie Mellon, like Georgia Tech, is also exploring opportunities in other parts of the globe. "I don't want CMU to be the McDonald's of education," says Khosla, "but having a presence in Europe and Asia would be helpful."

Really Distant Education

Michigan has ventured into less familiar terrain than either Georgia Tech or Carnegie Mellon, establishing a presence in China. At the heart of its China initiative is a joint venture with Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) that leads to a Michigan degree in either industrial or mechanical engineering. Michigan's was the first non-Chinese engineering school approved by the Chinese Education Ministry to issues degrees.

The most innovative part of the program enables students who have been admitted by both SJTU and Michigan to earn an industrial engineering degree from Ann Arbor and a mechanical engineering degree from SJTU or vice versa. The students spend two semesters in Ann Arbor and receive a degree in one engineering specialty and then return to SJTU to do research and earn a degree in the other specialty. At the moment, 15 SJTU students are enrolled on the Ann Arbor campus. The top four students in the group, as determined by their academic record, receive a tuition waiver. Others are sponsored by SJTU, and a few pay full tuition.

As part of the agreement with SJTU, Michigan faculty members go to China for a month at a time to teach. They compress a semester-long course into four weeks by holding classes for two hours a day, five days a week. Michigan engineering dean Stephen Director says that "there is growing interest on the part of the faculty in teaching in China." The president of SJTU, Professor Shengwu Xie, says that his students "respond warmly to lectures from University of Michigan professors, who use a team approach that helps our students." Michigan mechanical engineering professor Jun Ni, who was instrumental in establishing the program, says that typically students in China have been told "you need to learn by yourself. They didn't know that when you work as a team you can accomplish much more."

Michigan faculty members also bring an "interactive" style to the classroom that engages students, says Zhongquin Lin, dean of SJTU's School of Mechanical Engineering. The Michigan professors give students ongoing assignments rather than focusing everything on a final exam the way Chinese professors typically do. As a result, says Lin, "students learn more."

Faculty members from SJTU are spending time in Ann Arbor to get a firsthand look at the American style of instruction. They are interested not only in the way engineering is taught but also math and science. When they return to SJTU, some of the younger faculty will work with Michigan professors who have come to Shanghai to teach.

Michigan is having an impact outside the classroom, too. "We are helping them to institute a new promotion and tenure process that is more similar to the American system," says Director.

Michigan has also launched a distance-learning initiative in China that leads to a degree in manufacturing engineering. The bulk of the 30-credit program is taught via the Internet, although students can take up to three courses from a list of SJTU offerings that have been approved by Michigan. The components of the distance course—lecture clips, assignments, and the like—are streamed on the Web. Students communicate with faculty by e-mail.

The $30,000 cost of the program, which is designed for students with some work experience who hold an undergraduate engineering degree, has proved to be a deterrent. Even U.S.-based companies have been reluctant to pay so large a tab for employees in a nation where tuition is customarily very low and students often receive scholarships.

Initially, only two students signed up for the program, but that number has since climbed to 16, four short of the initial target. The courses offered in China are comparable to online courses Michigan already had up and running in Europe, Canada, and Mexico, so the enrollment shortfall has not been a major financial burden. Still, Director says that Michigan is revisiting the issue of pricing. "We are feeling our way through it in terms of the right pricing structure," he says. He adds that companies like General Motors have become very interested in having employees take part in the program and anticipates that enrollment will grow.

Michigan has plans for expanding its ties to SJTU. Already in the works is an undergraduate exchange program that would send some SJTU students to study engineering in Ann Arbor, while some Michigan students spend a semester at SJTU. There is also talk of enlarging Michigan's offerings at SJTU to include electrical engineering and computer science.

Director expects several American universities to follow Michigan's lead and partner with other Chinese universities. China, after all, graduates more engineers than any other nation and more than three times as many as the United States. With the opportunity to reach a market of that magnitude beckoning, it seems inevitable that more engineering schools will soon wade into the global marketplace.


Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.
He can be reached at

Around the World

Undergraduate Engineering Degrees Awarded in 1999

China 196,340
Japan 103,440
Russia 82,409
United States 60,914
South Korea 45,145
Germany 32,663
India 29,000
France 22,828
United Kingdom 22,012
Mexico 21,358
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