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Opinion by Joseph Untener

Don't Get Lost in Translation

In exchanges with China, both sides can adapt.

Were students disengaged or following custom?In times of rapid growth, we are likely to feel growing pains and get some things wrong. So it is with the tremendous increase in engineering education partnerships with universities overseas, requiring us to enter very different learning environments with open minds and take the time to understand them. Exchanges with China offer a prime example, as I have learned during partnerships with several Chinese institutions.

By now, most international interaction in higher education has moved past the “study abroad” model in which students observe another culture while not truly leaving their own. But even with improved contact between Chinese and U.S. students and faculty, we still tend either to exaggerate the differences caused by language and cultural barriers – or to pretend that we’re all the same.

Observing a Chinese teenager texting in English will convince you that piercing the language barrier is not nearly as difficult as it might seem. Differences in culture often lead us to dwell too much on business-etiquette “do’s and taboos,” such as the proper way to exchange a business card or not to give a clock as a gift. Too much attention to small differences in manners can obscure more important lessons that engineering educators and students need to learn to make academic exchanges successful.

One lesson is not to be overly swayed by initial impressions. During my first day teaching in Shanghai, I was struck by how disengaged the students seemed, despite my attempt to draw their attention by gesturing, strolling between desks, speaking in my room-filling “teacher's voice,” and posing questions. Not only was there a lack of intensity, but many students had what appeared to be a tired look of obliged attendance, with more than a few literally laying their heads down on their desks. Over the first few days of class, I found that students were not offering input nor even answering direct questions.

Observing classes taught by Chinese colleagues, I learned that my experience was in fact the norm: All professors wore microphones, spoke in quiet voices, and stayed in the teacher-designated space behind their desks. Significant numbers of students had their heads down, while others appeared to be playing with phones or eating.

But the seeming disengagement doesn’t mean all the students lacked seriousness. I was surprised to learn, for example, that a group of students came to my class over an hour early just to get the seats in front. They also were accustomed to seeking the meaning of the instruction for themselves, and didn’t need to be entertained or brought into question-and-answer sessions. Nor should we assume that students won’t accommodate different teaching styles. After I made clear that I didn’t plan to change my approach, students adjusted. Smiles became the norm. Most became comfortable with questions like “What are some different ways that we might approach this?” and many did, in fact, find a voice to respond to such ill-defined questions.

A senior design course or group projects expose other differences. Open-ended cases with a multitude of potential solutions are unsettling for many American students; to Chinese students, they are completely new territory. Chinese also tend to defer to and not challenge a team leader. And they will be more inclined to utilize theoretical analysis, while students in the United States may be more drawn to empirical testing.

When trying to establish successful partnerships, then, we need to work, explore, and be open to change and adjustments as the relationships develop, adapting to other cultural styles while helping students adapt to ours. With critical help from universities’ centers for international programs, communications departments, and local Chinese communities, engineering educators can pave the way for students in the United States, who often don’t do well initially in intercultural work groups. They will graduate into a world requiring patience and cultural awareness as they work with international teammates, or suppliers, or customers – who come increasingly from China. With flexibility and effort, we can help set up great outcomes on all sides, and yes, even enjoy the experience.


Joseph Untener is a professor of mechanical engineering technology at the University of Dayton. He has worked with Shanghai Normal University, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, and the Suzhou Industrial Park in various partnership programs.




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