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Sharing Technology

With top-notch facilities and students trained in English, Korea makes good use of imported knowledge.

HENRY PETROSKI While in Korea to participate in a technology forum, I also lectured at the civil and environmental systems engineering department of Hanyang University in Ansan, which is located just south of Seoul. The experience reminded me that engineering education can be at the same time universal and culture-specific.

The room in which I was to speak had just been the venue for presenting reports on capstone design projects. Unlike the casually dressed students I had passed in the hallways, the ones in the room all wore business attire. They thus provided an exceptionally well-dressed audience, but what impressed me more was the way they arranged themselves to listen to my lecture.

The room was long and narrow, and the rows of seats were tiered. Since there were about three times as many seats as students, they might have spread themselves out rather comfortably. However, all of the students crammed themselves into the middle-third rows of seats, avoiding entirely the rows closest to and farthest from the front.

The front-third rows of seats appeared to be reserved for faculty members and distinguished guests. That is where my guide for the day, the chief of the bridge technology group of a major Korean engineering and construction firm, sat. On a drive that morning to show me the newly opened Incheon cable-stayed bridge, he explained that he and his engineers had visited the United States to observe the construction of a very similar bridge in Charleston, S.C. He also told me that engineers responsible for constructing a self-anchored suspension span for the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge improvement had visited Korea to view its existing bridge of that type.

Such technology transfer is not new, but it is being made increasingly easy by the use of English - the lingua franca of modern technology - in engineering instruction at institutions like Hanyang University. Indeed, several students at my lecture demonstrated their fluency by asking excellent questions, ones that followed so naturally from my abbreviated talk that I was able to illustrate the answers with extra slides of bridges that had been omitted from the lecture.

After the question-and-answer session, a graduate student led my guide and me downstairs, where we were offered coffee while we waited for the head professor to finish another class. Other than the predominance of Korean-language titles in the professor's bookcases, this office could have been located on any campus in the United States.

When the professor arrived, he took us across the hall to show us one of his current research projects, which is sponsored by NASA and involves forming structural components out of construction materials that will be available on the moon.

Next we went to his structural engineering laboratory, whose size and dedicated building alone would make it the envy of many a U.S. university. The lab proved to have both a "strong floor" - one designed to anchor large pieces of testing equipment capable of applying and resisting forces great enough to break good-sized steel and concrete beams - and ordinary floors.

The laboratory also has a substantial reaction wall, which can resist large horizontal forces the way the strong floor does vertical ones. Until recent years, there were few structural engineering laboratories in America that could boast such an arrangement on such a scale as I saw in Ansan.

The existence of facilities like this, along with the American-made testing equipment that is being employed in them, means that Asian graduate students no longer have to travel halfway around the world to find a top-notch laboratory and the world-class research projects that it makes possible. Travel can wait.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. Last December, he attended Tech Plus Forum 2009, held in Seoul, where he spoke on the topic of his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.




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