E-school seeks to lower barriers to foreign study for its undergraduates
International activities Fourth in an ongoing series
Engineering school study abroad opportunities
From Rio Road to Rio de Janeiro: U.Va. Engineering Program Sends Students to Brazil
By Charlotte Crystal
The School of Engineering and Applied Science is exploring new ways to encourage its students to study overseas.
Like other fields, engineering has gone global. Engineers in industry often work with colleagues in other countries, communicating by phone, e-mail and teleconference, and sharing drawings and documents by fax and e-mail. There is likewise a growing sense in academe that the more experience engineering students have with diverse cultures during their college years, the better able they will be to adapt to an international workplace once they’re on the job.
A number of engineering students arrive at college after having traveled extensively with their families, said P. Paxton Marshall, professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean for undergraduate programs at the school. In recent years, the students have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of studying abroad.
“It’s hard to specify how much advantage foreign study would give students for a first job, but it may open up opportunities for them down the road,” Marshall said.
Still, compared with the size of the engineering school’s undergraduate student body, the number of engineering students currently heading overseas to study is relatively small. Marshall estimates that only six to 20 engineering students — 1 percent or less — of the approximately 2,000 engineering undergraduates enrolled at U.Va., study abroad in any given year.
“It’s mostly an issue of the prerequisite structure of our curriculum,” Marshall said. “Students go abroad all the time, but it requires planning. They need to get their prerequisites taken care of before they leave so they don’t come back and find they can’t get into the classes they need because they haven’t taken the prerequisites.”
Compared with other majors at U.Va., an engineering major means a strong commitment to a prescribed course of study that is heavy on classes in engineering, math and science. Engineering students generally need 128 credits to graduate, only slightly more than the 120 credits that most students graduating from the College of Arts & Sciences must complete. But College students generally have fewer required courses for their majors, giving them a lot more flexibility.
According to the U.Va. Undergraduate Record, a student majoring in African-American studies at the College of Arts & Sciences must complete 11 required courses; in biology, 11; economics, 11; history, 11; and psychology, 11. (An exception to the rule in the College is chemistry, which has 27 required courses, including labs.)
Schools that train students to enter a specific field with a certain level of technical mastery, such as nursing and architecture, have a higher number of required courses. At the School of Nursing, students must complete 21 required courses for a bachelor’s degree in nursing. At the School of Architecture, students must complete 18 required courses for a bachelor’s degree in architecture.
At the engineering school, requirements tend to be even higher, although all majors have three unrestricted and three humanities or social science electives. Course counts (including required labs), for a selection of engineering school majors are: biomedical engineering, 26 required courses; electrical engineering, 22; civil engineering, 28; chemical engineering, 30; mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering, 31.
Because it can be difficult to find equivalent courses at other universities, it is often a challenge for engineering students who would like to attend other institutions to transfer academic credits to the engineering school.
One approach that engineering students have used in the past, according to Marshall, has been to save up their elective credits and to spend them on a semester abroad. Engineering students also have spent summers overseas and expressed interest in J-term options, which would allow them to take electives, while staying on track for their prerequisites and required courses for their majors during the academic year, he said.
In 1998, a curriculum revision allowed the same course to fulfill basic requirements for different majors, encouraging engineering students to minor or pursue a second major (since the revision, the number of students completing minors jumped from 14 in 1997-1998 to 153 in 2004-2005). The somewhat greater flexibility created by the engineering curriculum revision also makes it easier for engineering students to study abroad to fulfill their non-major or second-major course requirements, Marshall said. With a number of new programs currently in the final planning stages or already under way [see sidebar], interested students will have an array of academic and experiential opportunities from which to choose.
“Successful engineers need more than just technical skills,” Marshall said. “They also need to be able to work in environments in which other considerations — social, economic, environmental and cultural — affect project outcomes. Study abroad and other opportunities to learn by doing, such as educational internships and team projects for community service, are vital elements of an engineering education. They supplement classroom learning and help prepare students for successful careers as professional engineers.”
Engineering school study abroad opportunities
Jason Manto, a fourth-year student in biomedical engineering, was so determined to see other parts of the world that he took matters into his own hands. He took off his second year at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and spent the summer studying Chinese language and history at East China Normal University in Shanghai (for which he received nine credits) followed by a semester teaching English at a private elementary school in Shendong Province. With the help of a Chinese graduate student in the biomedical engineering department, he arranged to do biomedical research at Tsinghua University in Beijing last summer, and he recently returned from a three-week trip to Cameroon to work on a water purification project with a team of U.Va. students (neither experience carried any academic credit).
For engineering students who are likewise interested in expanding their educational horizons but less certain about making their own arrangements, the engineering school is developing a number of new initiatives.
The U.S.-Brazil Cognitive Systems Engineering Exchange Program brings together undergraduate students from two American universities (U.Va. and Ohio State University) and two Brazilian universities (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul). See www.virginia.edu/insideuva for more information.
The Engineering in Context Program, which sponsored Manto’s trip to Cameroon, offers opportunities for engineering students to grapple with engineering problems overseas. In Cameroon, Manto was one of seven U.Va. students – five from engineering, one from environmental sciences and one from the McIntire School of Commerce — who worked on a two-pronged project to develop a water filter that could be cheaply and easily made by local artisans to purify drinking water and to establish guidelines for nonprofit organizations working in developing countries to assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of proposed technical solutions.
“The EIC program gives students another frame of reference, something they can compare their domestic experience to,” said Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science and engineering, who earned his doctorate in Germany at the University of Stuttgart. “It encourages an interdisciplinary, team approach to problems that will serve our students well once they get out into the workplace.”
Since 2002, U.Va.’s engineering school also has hosted a chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Modeled on the international organization Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit student group that tries to match interested engineering students with simple, socially responsible projects in developing countries. In recent years, U.Va. students have traveled to Mexico and southern Africa with Engineers Without Borders.
Other opportunities for engineering students to work or study abroad may come through individual faculty projects. A number of faculty members conduct research overseas and bring undergraduate students along to help, said P. Paxton Marshall, professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean for undergraduate programs.
In related developments, engineering school faculty have been working to identify specific courses at other institutions that would be accepted for required engineering courses.
Programs recently identified include a study-abroad center in France, run by the Georgia Institute of Technology; the Munich Technical Institute in Germany; and the DIS program at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In all cases, courses are offered in English.
Currently, Zongli Lin, professor in electrical and computer engineering, is helping to finalize an agreement with Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. Again, undergraduates will be able to study there in English.
Marshall said that the arrangement will probably be established as a student exchange, which is expected to start next fall.
Beginning next fall, U.Va. engineering students also will be able to study at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. (Apart from the Australian accent, the language there shouldn’t prove too difficult a challenge.) Officials at the school have agreed to provide housing, academic advising and orientation to the U.Va. students.
Marshall also said he expects that engineering undergraduates will be able to take advantage of the Semester at Sea program, once U.Va. assumes full responsibility for the program’s curriculum and academic quality.
|From Rio Road to Rio de Janeiro: U.Va. Engineering Program Sends Students to Brazil
By Charlotte Crystal
Brazil wasn’t originally at the top of Craig Pratsch’s Where-I’d-Most-Like-to-Study-Abroad List. But when a chance to travel to Rio de Janeiro came up, the fourth-year student from Alexandria jumped on it. And he’s glad he did.
“It was definitely a blast,” Pratsch said.
Pratsch, who is majoring in systems and information engineering, was one of five University of Virginia students who traveled to Brazil last summer with the U.S.-Brazil Cognitive Systems Engineering Exchange Program. Organized by Stephanie Guerlain, associate professor of systems and information engineering at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the program brings together undergraduate engineering students from two American universities (U.Va. and Ohio State University) and two Brazilian universities (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul). The students work together in Brazil and the United States on joint projects.
The program is a bit more involved than a standard summer abroad; it requires a three-semester commitment from participating U.Va. students. Last spring, in the second semester of their third year, the U.Va. students took courses in beginning Portuguese and cognitive systems engineering here in Charlottesville. Cognitive systems engineering involves designing computer software that interacts directly with users.
Last summer, the students flew to Brazil and spent six weeks in Rio de Janeiro in an intensive Portuguese language program. After that, they split into three groups, two groups staying at the university in Rio and the other going to the university in Porto Allegre.
Last fall, they took engineering classes at the two Brazilian universities and conducted research for their “capstone” projects – the senior theses that fourth-year systems undergraduates must complete. In all cases, the capstone project teams include U.S. and Brazilian students. Then in January, the U.Va. students returned to Charlottesville with their Brazilian counterparts. They continued to write up their research, completed their capstone projects together this spring and presented them publicly at the IEEE Systems and Information Engineering Design Symposium on April 28.
In Brazil, the students’ research projects included designing a software program that would help dispatchers for Petrobras, Brazil’s major oil and gas company, make more efficient use of their fleet of delivery trucks; designing a program that would help Petrobras make better use of its incident reporting system; and designing improvements for a training simulator at Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Institute.
Pratsch’s team was asked to help two Petrobras dispatchers work with 31 tanker truck drivers who deliver gasoline, diesel fuel and alcohol to more than 100 gas stations in southeastern Brazil each day. The tanker trucks range in capacity from 10,000 to 30,000 liters and the gas stations range in distance from a few miles to hundreds of miles away. When the students arrived, the dispatchers had no logical system in place to help them make the most efficient use of their resources.
“They tended to ship out the complainers and the quiet ones got less shipments,” Pratsch said.
The challenge was to design a program that would increase fairness, efficiency and profits by lowering costs, reducing driver waiting time and fatigue, and reducing the stress on the two schedulers. The U.S. and Brazilian students worked together on site to gather the needed information and are working together in Charlottesville now to complete the design for the computer software.
Pratsch said it wasn’t hard to adjust to Brazilian society, which is predominantly Christian and “materialistic,” though with more warm physical contact than in the United States. He particularly liked greeting the women with kisses.
While communicating in Portuguese was “frustrating at first, it got better by the end.” He also enjoyed the churrascuria, restaurants that specialized in roasted meat. “I didn’t meet any vegetarians,” he said.
Guerlain hopes this program can serve as a model for future joint international engineering education programs. It involves shared supervision of the students — she supervised the U.Va. students’ background preparation here, Brazilian faculty supervised all the students there, and she is supervising the Brazilian and U.Va. students as they complete their projects here. “The students have also been helping each other – those who are finishing up the program help those starting the program the next year,” she said.
Pratsch’s group was the second to participate in this pilot program, which is currently supported by the federal Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Guerlain has applied to the National Science Foundation to continue the program another four years after the 2006-2007 academic year when the current funding runs out.
“There is a lot of student interest in studying abroad, but it’s very difficult to do at the engineering school due to all of the requirements,” Guerlain said. “We had to get creative in designing the program curriculum and in arranging for transfer credits to make it work.”
But she believes that the opportunity is worth the effort. In addition to giving the students academic experience in another culture, the program also serves to broaden their perspectives in other areas.
Pratsch said he gained some insight into Brazilians’ perceptions of the United States, its problems and its politics. Brazilians wondered why a country as wealthy as the United States had so many homeless people. They asked him who he voted for for president. And they taught him to show more awareness of the his nation’s place on the globe.
“I’m much more conscious of saying I’m from the U.S. now, rather than saying I’m American,” Pratsch said, “because Brazilians are Americans, too.”
RELATED LINK: 2006 IEEE SYSTEMS AND INFORMATION ENGINEERING DESIGN SYMPOSIUM (http://www.sys.virginia.edu/sieds06/)