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ON THE SHELFBitten by the Bug

Faculty recount experiences

– some of them life-changing

– in foreign lands.

What is Global Engineering Education For? The Making of International Educators.
Edited by Gary Lee Downey and Kacey Beddoes. Morgan & Claypool Publishers 2011. 486 pps.

When Lester Gerhardt of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute speaks of his early involvement in global engineering education, he recalls becoming aware of an obligation to help the less fortunate. Others, recounting their experiences, note that working overseas can help push students out of their comfort zone, promoting greater creativity and flexibility. Still others use the question to challenge themselves and their students, probing the ethics of working with communities abroad. “How can we engineer systems that will not disrupt local cultures?” asks Anu Ramaswami of the University of Colorado, Denver. “Who decides what is appropriate?”

As coeditor of What Is Global Engineering Education For? The Making of International Educators, which grew out of a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation, Gary Downey believes these kinds of insights can be edifying. In recent years, the call to scale up U.S. global involvement and competitiveness has increased as America’s technology lead has been threatened by China, India, and other nations. Yet for engineering educators, Downey is convinced, a first step lies in determining “what is at stake... and for whom.” As part of the project, he asked 16 university educators to relate their personal and professional experiences in this complex realm of engineering education. Their “personal geographies” are offered as a way to “map the present” and inform future efforts. The volume also contains a historical overview of international engineering education from the 1940s to the present and an epilogue that explores implications for future pedagogy. This solid and engaging work should be of considerable interest to Prism readers.

The separately authored chapters can almost be read as brief biographies, and several contain fascinating stories of first contact with foreign cultures. Alan Parkinson of Brigham Young University relates how he found himself, as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary, in Kobe, Japan, feeling “almost as if I had been transported to another planet.” Michael Nugent, currently director of the National Security Education Program within the Department of Defense, was “bitten by the bug” after a trip to Germany in the eighth grade. And for Rick Vaz, the project “that would change my career and life” unfolded only after he was tenured at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Having agreed to advise a senior study on the flow rates in Venetian canals, Vaz boarded a plane to Italy, carrying circuit boards, tubes, sensors, “and other suspicious artifacts,” wondering “just what I had gotten myself into.” Clearly, many of these encounters continue to resonate. As a fledgling mechanical engineering student, Parkinson had to abandon Japanese language study, “because I felt engineering was about all I could handle.” Yet, as dean of BYU’s college of engineering, he was the first to identify the underutilized wealth of having so many former missionary students who possess both language skills and overseas living experience.

Because the volume allows its authors to expound at length upon both personal and professional experiences, the result is a set of highly thoughtful essays that analyze the various challenges faced, solutions and compromises reached, and insights gained. Juan Lucena of the Colorado School of Mines describes, for example, how conversations with a Mexican activist helped him realize “that in community development, a community, not the engineers, should decide what engineering is for.” Several essays detail the frustrations of dealing with intransigent departments and creative possibilities for developing international engineering courses or programs.

A strong message that emerges from Global Engineering Education is the need to expand the focus of engineering education beyond technical competence. Some of the most useful skills students develop in an overseas environment include the so-called soft ones of diplomacy, cross-cultural understanding, and analysis. Yet, this achievement is often dismissed as nonessential to an engineering education. The authors of this volume envision a different reality. Through their narratives, they demonstrate various ways to better integrate the international into the core engineering curricula.


Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.




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