It’s the beer that Michael Schmidt says he misses the most
from the 20 months he spent in Germany. But the tasty pilsner was
just one aspect of his cultural immersion as a Georgia Institute
of Technology mechanical engineering undergraduate studying and
working in the country. Armed with three semesters of classroom
German, Schmidt’s work in a co-op program at Bosch in Immenstadt
in southern Bavaria solidified his language skills. He later studied
alongside German students at the Technical University of Munich
and interned at Siemens AG. Now, as a graduate student researching
energy systems at Georgia Tech and interviewing for an industry
job, he’s already seen his international experience pay off.
“One of the main reasons Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy
Institute was interested in me is because they knew I had experience
abroad. It puts me ahead of my peers.”
A generation ago, engineers rarely ventured overseas for jobs, much less for their training. International opportunities were out there to be sure, but most of the action was still largely within the United States’ borders. This month’s freshly minted graduates, on the other hand, will be hard-pressed to avoid the long arm of globalization, whether they work with teammates from another country, design products for foreign consumers or live and work abroad. “It’s almost inevitable that engineers will be working internationally in some way, shape or form,” predicts John Grandin, director of the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) International Engineering Program. And while more engineering programs than ever are offering international opportunities to prepare grads like Schmidt through coursework, study abroad, internships and international teamwork, experts say the United States still has a long way to go to meet the increasing demand for globally competent engineers. Just last year, a report commissioned by Continental AG, titled In Search of Global Engineering Excellence, called for universities to do more to integrate international opportunities into the engineering curricula. “Only 4 percent of engineering graduates have some kind of international experience. That’s exceedingly low—not anywhere close to where we want to be,” says Jack Lohmann, vice provost for institutional development at Georgia Tech.
Getting that number up is critical as American companies shift their focus to international markets. An engineer who wanted to work in the automotive industry in the 1970s, for example, likely went no farther than Detroit. Today, jobs could be anywhere. “The global pressures on business will force every U.S. company to be competitive in the global market, or they will go out of business,” says Jeffrey Finn, an engineering manager for John Deere based in Tianjin, China. “If an engineering graduate fails to understand the global competitiveness of the world today, they too will fail along with their company. Global exposure in both education and work internships is critical in breaking down cultural barriers so engineers can develop innovative solutions for global customers.”
Even if they never set foot outside the United States, it’s crucial that engineers know how to communicate with foreign counterparts. “Globalization is right here at home,” Lohmann explains. “In one sense, the world has come to us.” For example, Purdue mechanical engineering grad Brandon Zwink, whose junior year abroad in Germany included designing a carnival ride with German teammates, says his international experience has been invaluable to his job at John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s working on a design for front axles and regularly talks to German suppliers over the phone. “If you can’t communicate, it clearly hinders your ability to come up with a really good design,” Zwink says. Likewise, having a handle on cultural differences is key to working for foreign companies within the United States. During a co-op with Bosch in Charleston, S.C., Schmidt noticed that the German interns were confused by the casual office demeanor of Americans. The hearty good-morning greeting and handshake favored by Germans often was met with a barely audible mumble from most Americans. “The German interns thought the Americans didn’t really like them,” Schmidt recalls.
It’s no surprise that the relatively few grads who understand these nuances are a hot commodity on the job market. Dan Hirleman, who directs Purdue’s Global Engineering Program, says his graduates get multiple job offers and advance quickly within their companies. “The ability to work in a global environment and assimilate in another culture is critical to long-term success.” Just look at top-tier management, adds Grandin. “Most CEOs these days are bilingual and can move back and forth between cultures.”
In the Minority
Nonetheless, the number of engineering students made up only 2.9 percent of the 205,983 American students who studied abroad in the 2004-05 school year. That’s compared with social-science majors at 22.6 percent and business students, who comprised 17.5 percent, according to the latest data from the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) based in Portland, Maine. And while the overall number of study-abroad students has risen, the percentage of engineering students has remained static for the past four years. “Engineering students are more likely to have careers that are more international than others, so it’s ironic that they aren’t going abroad in larger numbers,” says Michael Vande Berg, CIEE’s vice president for academic affairs.
Educators traditionally blame the woeful turnout on engineering’s highly sequenced curricula. “Historically, engineering students have not studied abroad in large numbers due to the lack of elective courses and the absence of an educational culture that emphasizes the importance of international experience,” says Janet Ellzey, who directs the overseas educational programs at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Engineering, where overseas opportunities include summer schools and semester-exchange programs in Brazil, France and the Netherlands. Up until recently, says Georgia Tech’s Lohmann, study abroad wasn’t viewed as a priority. “For a long time, international experience was viewed as frosting on the cake, not part of the ingredients,” he says. “If you could fit it into your schedule, that would be great, but it wasn’t encouraged to be a part of your experience.”
Even if a student does manage to squeeze in a stint overseas, however, choosing the right courses can be very tricky. “The big stumbling block is trying to homogenize engineering education around the world, which is surprisingly varied,” explains Charles Eastlake, an aerospace engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “Even France, the United Kingdom and Germany have systems that are dramatically different than ours, including the nature of the courses, the length and how the courses are presented.”
Thanks in part to the ABET 2000 criteria, some programs are finding ways around these obstacles to boost the international flavor of their programs. Through its International Honors Program, for example, Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering has managed to increase the number of students who receive part of their education abroad from 5 percent a few years ago to 20 percent. Embry-Riddle’s Prescott, Ariz., campus now offers a B.S. in science, technology and globalization that includes a foreign language requirement as well as courses in global history, economics, politics, geography and engineering cultures. And, like a lot of schools, the College of Engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., works with foreign universities and industry to enable students to work together on team projects. The school also has integrated what it calls International Service Learning, which, much like Engineers Without Borders, enables engineering students to work on projects, such building a bridge or sewage system, in villages in developing countries.
These programs are surely a step in the right direction, but some of the most successful programs take a more immersive, multi-pronged approach. One of the earliest was URI’s International Engineering Program, which incorporates a fifth year of study and a B.A. in a language. Grandin, a German professor, dreamt up the idea with the school’s engineering dean back in 1987. They started by sending fourth-year students to the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany for a semester, then on to a six-month internship somewhere in Germany. Options now include France, Spain and most recently, China. “The biggest push came from industry,” Grandin explains. “CEOs were saying to us, ‘Germany is great, but you’ve got to get involved in China.’ ”
Indeed, Germany has been the launching pad for several international programs. Having spent part of his own graduate studies in Germany, Purdue’s Hirleman, a mechanical engineering professor, was prompted to start the school’s Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education (GEARE) in 2001 after he learned that less than 1 percent of the students in the College of Engineering studied abroad. Meanwhile, the markets for most of the major companies that hire in the Midwest, such as John Deere and Cummins Engine, were overseas. The program, launched in 2002 through an alliance between Purdue and Universität Karls-ruhe in Germany, consists of an orientation in language and culture, a domestic internship, a subsequent international internship with the same company, one semester of study abroad and a two-semester (one of which is abroad) design team project. Hirleman went on to establish links with Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, and, most recently, the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies in Monterrey, Mexico.
GEARE was designed to allow participants to graduate along with their peers. The intense schedule, however, requires that students be recruited freshman year, which Hirleman suspects may limit the demand for the program (23 students have been accepted for 2008). Nonetheless, cutting corners is out of the question. “It’s critical that the students early in their education be put in team situations where they have to make decisions. You have to understand where the global customer is coming in and the culture of your teammates,” he insists. “By the time they graduate, they’ve had a very unique set of experiences.”
Another comprehensive program is Georgia Tech’s International Plan, introduced in 2005. The school already has a reputation for sending students to study abroad; its Paris program began in the early 1980s. Today, more than 30 percent of its engineering grads have some sort of educational experience outside the United States, including at campuses in France, Ireland and, coming soon, Singapore. The new plan builds on this legacy by incorporating two semesters abroad with coursework in global economics, international relations and regional interests. It also requires students to be proficient in a second language and to complete a capstone project. Graduates receive a special designation on their diplomas. Lohmann has high hopes that in three or four years, fully half of Georgia Tech students will be enrolled in the plan. Like Hirleman, he argues that there’s no substitute for on-the-ground experience. “You can talk about globalization all you want, but you can’t just sit in the classroom and read about it in a book—you really have to go out and experience it.”
The next step for many universities is extending these programs to graduate schools. URI, for example, has a dual master’s program in which students do half of their work in the United States and the other half abroad. Grandin says he’s now pushing for the exchange of students at the doctoral level. Purdue’s GEARE program is being extended to the graduate level. And Brown University’s engineering division has just introduced a one-year graduate program that features a global immersion experience.
Of course, much work remains to be done on the undergraduate level, proponents of international education say. “More and more deans are talking about it; the awareness of the issue has grown considerably,” says Grandin. “But I don’t think a sufficient number of schools have started up programs. I think we have a long way to go.”
Progress depends on making engineering education more transferable from country to country, says Eastlake. “It’s going to happen, but there will be some significant bumps in the road.” Moreover, freeing up the engineering curricula at home would allow for more students to participate in international programs, Lohmann argues. “Students today are exceedingly globally aware, but they have very little flexibility.” Still, he remains optimistic. “In the last three to five years, we’ve seen many more engineering programs on the uptake. The wake-up call has been received.”
Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.
Spending Summer Somewhere Else
Not every engineering student has the option of spending a semester abroad. But many have found that a summer internship can be an ideal way to get practical work experience as well as a taste of a different culture. Internship placement programs can alleviate some of the hassles of finding a job, getting a visa and securing housing in an unfamiliar country.
One such organization, the International
Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience
been matching students with paid science and engineering internships
since 1950. This summer, IAESTE United States is sending about 120
students to more than 30 different countries, including India, Japan
and Poland. In return, the United States will be hosting the same
number of students from around the world.
Dan Witter volunteered with his local IAESTE chapter when he was a civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He found two U.S.-based internships that IAESTE could offer to students from other countries, and as a result, he was able to go on one himself. Last summer, he spent three months at Technip, an offshore engineering company in Oslo, Norway. He made friends with other IAESTE interns who were also in Norway that summer. “I now have connections with people from all around the world,” Witter says. He credits his overseas experience with helping him land his current job as an engineer with the Manitowoc Crane Group in Wisconsin.
International Cooperative Education (ICE) is another placement program that offers a variety of summer internships, with some choice opportunities for engineering students with strong language skills. Internship sites include BMW’s Mini Cooper plant in Oxford, England; ABB China Limited in Beijing, which makes products for utilities and industry; and Shijir International, a biotech company in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Interns are asked to keep a daily journal and write a final report, says ICE coordinator Gunter Seefeldt, giving students a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned from their summer abroad. —Corinna Wu