Global Engineering Students Gain International Experiences

This article originally appeared in the Number 3: 2014 issue of Iowa Engineer magazine published by the University of Iowa College of Engineering. 

By Jean Florman

On some campuses, the word “global education” has become the academic equivalent of “double latte”—everyone bandies it about, but only a select few choose to indulge. At the University of Iowa College of Engineering, however, “global education” is becoming a fundamental and enriching facet of the undergraduate academic experience in every department, whether students study abroad or study with their international peers on campus. During the last year, the crafting of these enhanced, “double latte” educational opportunities have been supported by the new Director of Global Experiences and Academic Advisor, Amy Brewster.

Brewster is nothing if not enthusiastic about her work. She has worked with engineering staff members, faculty, and students as well as the UI Office of International Programs to assess and address the nature of students’ experiences in global education. Brewster gained her own international experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria after earning a degree in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa. She earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Policy and Administration while working at the University of Minnesota before returning to Iowa in October, 2013.

“The engineer of the future must contribute to productive collaborations among diverse colleagues from around the world,” College of Engineering Dean and University of Iowa Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Alec Scranton says. “A global experience will provide undergraduate students with invaluable exposure to different cultures and new ways of thinking and set them on the path to success.”

The college is not new to global education. Since 1999 it has joined forces with a French university to offer the Virtual International Project Teams course, and for many years a significant number of international graduate students and faculty members have enriched the learning environment at Iowa. Four years ago, 84 international engineering undergraduates attended Iowa; in fall 2014, that number had risen to 169. Although Brewster notes that remains a relatively small proportion of the total undergradu - ate enrollment (eight per cent), the College of Engineering has created new orientation and support systems for interna - tional students once they arrive on campus.

Recently Brewster and other university administrators traveled to three towns in China--Beijing, Harbin, and Hong Kong—to strengthen ties for both international students at Iowa and domestic students wanting to study abroad. Her visit to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) was particularly welcoming, in part because its provost is UI alumnus Eden Woon (BA 1967). Iowa faculty members also hope to forge ties with several Chinese univer - sities and teach there during future summers.

Once international students arrive at the University of Iowa, they are welcomed by an array of academic and social support programs, including International Student and Scholar Services’ support such as Global Buddies, the Life in Iowa program, and Friends Without Borders. The college celebrates its global diversity by displaying the word “Welcome” in multiple languages and flying flags that represent the home nations of students, faculty and staff members, and alumni.

A number of college-sponsored opportunities have helped Hanbin Tao, who hails from Shanghai, China, maxi - mize his cross-cultural experience at Iowa. An Honors stu - dent and recipient of the National Scholars Award, he has served as a peer advisor in the college, an undergraduate teaching assistant for two courses, and a research assistant.

“I would tell future international students to use their spare time to get involved in organizations and activities on campus,” he says. “Research and teaching assistant experiences will help you get to know the American culture and to meet people.”

That sentiment is echoed by Brazilian student Adair Gallo, a junior in chemical engineering who came to Iowa as a Brazil Scientific Mobility Program Scholar.

“Find what you like and what you want to be, and then look for people who have already gotten there,” he says. “Try to learn as much as you can from them. It’s possible to achieve big things if you believe you have the potential.”

Brewster says it is important for international students to feel they can honestly talk about their experiences and offer ideas about how the college could make their time here even better. She has hosted two feedback sessions during which international students helped her learn how to bet - ter integrate them into College of Engineering life and the local community. In response to their feedback, the College of Engineering launched an enhanced orientation program called Engineering@Iowa: A Step Ahead, as well as a Career Development Lunch-and-Learn series to help them connect to internship and research opportunities.

 The classroom setting provides the perfect context to connect international and domestic students through intense teamwork experiences. Required of all first-year students, Engineering Problem Solving I mixes international and domestic students in project teams. One positive outcome can be the enhancement of students’ understanding of cultural differences and the reliance by students on their cultural strengths as they wrestle with engineering problems.

“The experience enhances their understanding of the background and knowledge of their team members and helps them rely on their individual strengths,” Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Allen Bradley says, “which of course is made all the more significant when there are cultural differences also involved.”

As part of another required course, Engineering Success, it’s recommended that students seek opportunities to become “engineers and something more” including global experiences. Instructor and Director of Admissions and First-Year Experience Jane Dorman also emphasizes the tremendous value of working in diverse teams.

That knowledge and experience likewise is gained by domestic students when they study abroad. By partnering with the Study Abroad office to target and promote global learning opportunities specifically for engineering students, Brewster hopes to increase student interest in gaining a high quality academic experience abroad. Promotional efforts have included the development of major-specific web resources (Major Advising Pages), information sessions (information session titles/topics have included: Student Exchange Programs; International Grants and Fellowships; The ABCs of Learning Abroad; India Winterim Opportunities; Summer Study in Rome; Summer Study in Hong Kong; STEM internships abroad), classroom visits, and the creation of brochures and other promotional materials to advertise global opportunities targeted towards engineering students. Brewster is working hard to dispel the myth that engineering students can’t study abroad, as there are numerous opportunities for both short and long-term study that incorporate engineering courses.

Brewster has wrapped study abroad and international student experiences into a branded Global Engineering presence at the college. In the future, an enhanced web site and active social media presence will keep students, faculty, and others aware of and interacting with the Global Engineering efforts. The new web site will be regularly updated with bios of international and student abroad students, along with descriptions of how their global experiences—in Iowa or abroad—have made a positive difference in their lives.

I’m especially excited about our new Global Engineering Advisory Board which will kick off during the spring semester,” Brewster says. “We’ll bring together students, alumni, employers, and faculty to provide ideas and advice as we continue to build Global Engineering opportunities. They also will help our students to create rich cross-cultural connections with each other and around the world.”A new Global Engineering Advisory Board will cast the college’s net even wider by pitching the program to engineering alumni and employers who can provide UI students with exciting global connections far beyond campus.

And that’s worth celebrating with a double latte.

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