In my role of the TU Delft academic liaison for the Global E3 university network I attended the Global E3 Annual Meeting in Bethlehem (US) 22-26 May. This city is home to Bethlehem Steel, famous for its historic huge steel ovens and factories that were closed in 1995 and are now a cultural heritage and arts and music venue.
The Global E3 consortium is a network of 72 universities, 33 US and 39 non-US. Its mission is to stimulate the exchange of students between US and non-US countries in particular. Not seldom the relations within the network form the basis for bilateral agreements for exchange between universities.
At the annual meeting the universities discuss operational and strategic issues related to influencing engineering students and programmes to accommodate student exchange. Each year parts of the meeting are spent to somewhat boring but important administrative issues like grade conversion, equivalence of courses, conflicts of curricular schedules and safety on campus. This year the theme of the conference was “Innovation in Engineering”. The Lehigh University, host of the event, and other universities in the network shared their ideas, experiments and successful implementations of shifts in pedagogy, technologies for global engagement, integrative projects and interdisciplinary multi-cultural programmes.
The Lehigh University
Lehigh University was quite unknown to me. It’s a private university with about 7000 students and renowned for its wide-ranging interdisciplinary programmes. They provide high levels of freedom and flexibility in their curricula to ensure students can pursue their individual fields of interests and ambitions. The programmes seem to me an excellent place for students who seek to create their own paths and aim for the challenge to converge perspectives in engineering sciences, business, arts and humanities.
In the following you’ll read my personal impressions of this 3-day meeting.
Going abroad: what does it bring our students?
The first day I attended the workshop “Cross-institutional perspectives in engineering”. In this workshop the research team of University of Pittsburgh, Lehigh University, University of Southern California and Clemson University presented a study that assessed the impact of international (education) experiences on the global competency and preparedness of students across 13 representative engineering programmes in the US. Although the study has an American perspective, I would expect many outcomes also apply to the European situation. The purpose was to get evidence about the different ways that global preparedness can be developed both in and outside formal curricula, to better understand how each approach enhances the students’ global awareness, preparedness and competencies, and to measure the impact certain experiences abroad have on engineering students.
“Mobility increases the opportunities but comes with cultural challenges” (quote Bart Reijnen, TU Delft Alumnus of the Year 2017)
The team had developed an operational model with four categories of learning outcomes for the readiness to engage and effectively operate under uncertainty in different cultural aspects and address engineering problems:
- International contextual knowledge,
- Personal and professional qualities,
- Engineering global preparedness,
- Cross-cultural communication skills and strategies.
They flowed these outcomes down into numerous attributes as shown in the diagram below and correlated each of these attributes with student experiences abroad prior to and during the study.
The analysis shows that students acquire high learning gains when they experience social risk taking but work through it constructively, especially when they work in cross-cultural teams. The highest scores of global competencies are obtained by students from families where parents have followed higher education. Personal tourism is important in building global perspectives. As we may expect, the exposure to international experiences throughout student’s life, both prior to and during study, determines the level of attainment. Parental education, background and experience are important factors. And so are the duration and number of experiences, and the comfort zone while abroad. Key in all this is the amount of reflection during and after the experience. So-called packing and unpacking activities prior to respectively after the stay abroad turns out to be extremely important. Also in the world of engineering practice reflections are the most important stepping stones to build upon in future, Kathleen Taylor of Johnson & Johnson told us in her keynote. Various universities mentioned they use of existing online tools for self-reflection on global competencies.
Many questions have not yet been answered and may be subject to a follow-up study. What is the impact of an international experience on the mastery of disciplinary knowledge? Can international experiences be connected to career perspectives? Does an encounter with multiple stakeholders abroad have an impact on the empathy of the student? To what extent are the international networks that are built up during a stay abroad, still relevant for the current generation of students? An interesting question, because even without a study abroad most students have a rich international network already through the social media at young age. Another important question that has not yet been answered is about the global competencies employers are looking for in relation to specific professional profiles and career horizons.
I have the impression that for European engineering students studying abroad is pretty much common practice. In the US many students still hesitate for mainly practical reasons: the high tuition fee in the US, incompatible schedules, unclear equivalence of courses, more stringent grading in Europe, higher daily living cost. This explains why many initiatives exist to stimulate US students to study abroad, and vice versa, to attract more non-US students to the US in order to import internationalisation on campus.
Daniel Kramer, Director of US Student Programs at the Institute of International Education (IIE), mentioned four factors that rapidly change the awareness of the added value of global competences with US engineering students:
- The growing numbers of students at universities, both national and international, which increases competition for graduates on the job market.
- The industries give clear messages that they aim for diversity and broadly developed talents of their employees. The race for talent in recruitment is global, and industries increasingly hire international teams. Keynote speaker Kathleen Taylor of Johnson & Johnson mentioned the positive impact of 3 to 6 month immersive experiences abroad while meeting and collaborating with locals.
- Many universities adapt their curricular programmes worldwide to better facilitate study abroad experiences for their students. Brad Hall of the University of New South Wales in Sydney gave the example of their experimental change in curriculum schedules into four periods to better match European schedules, with the aim to enhance exchange opportunities.
- Universities are involved in a growing number of international partnerships.
The sessions of the meeting showed a broad spectrum of study-abroad opportunities. In Global Engineering Minors universities produce engineering cornerstone courses that are merged with humanities and social sciences to learn about the self and the foreign culture. I heard about customised 6-week Summer Programmes, where students study engineering courses abroad, nearly always in combination with foreign language, history, culture or humanity courses. I heard about the engineering or research projects where students go abroad and intermingle with local students or local citizens. And there are initiatives of research-oriented study abroad formats in US, Asia and Europe.
Some of the US universities offer scholarships up to $5000 to compensate for travel and higher subsistence cost abroad. Or they pay students $500 to write a weblog while being abroad. Or provide credits to students who publish 30-second vlogs about their stay abroad. They are all stimuli to get American students on the move.
An overview by the Global E3 Administration showed that engineering students go significantly more abroad than ever before and more than any other group of students. Questions raised whether the recent change in US policy towards immigrants might have adverse effects on the exchange of students in the next years. All US staff stressed that their message has not changed: foreign students are more than welcome to join a study abroad period in the US. They find it important to enhance diversity on campus and also look for opportunities for US students to study abroad (also aiming for some level of balance between incoming and outgoing students). Last year more than 90% of all international students in the network who wanted to be placed in American universities were successfully placed. However, students cannot always be placed at their first preference institute. There was a loud call to stimulate students to orientate towards lesser-known universities. These also provide excellent exchange opportunities in an intercultural setting with interesting engineering courses, projects and events.
Going beyond the traditional classroom
I already mentioned that Lehigh University is renowned for its wide-ranging interdisciplinary programmes. What struck me most in the session about Lehigh Engineering Interdisciplinary Programs was the entrepreneurial spirit of many academic staff members of developing innovative and experimental educational environments. I give some highlights that were discussed and offer interesting opportunities for guest students.
Bill Best, professor Electrical and Computer Engineering at Lehigh explained that the Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences (IDEAS) programme is all about “the passion to integrate”. The 4-year programme “cultivates liberally educated and technologically sophisticated individuals whose habits of thought are thoroughly, comfortably interdisciplinary”. The programme is not accredited but this is irrelevant for its success. Students enrol not to increase their GPA, but to do what matters and learn what they want to learn. Students have great freedom of choice to establish individualised study programmes that are tailored to personal interests and ambitions. To bridge disciplines, communication is always very important. Each study is shaped around three principle questions “What do you want to learn?”, “Where do you want to do it?”, “If abroad, when do you want to leave?” A mosaic of technical, business and management courses and research or design projects is turned into a coherent set of knowledge packages through one-to-one consultation with enthusiastic staff advisors. This ensures each individual programme has the added value for a future career in engineering with an entrepreneurial dimension.
Another 4-year Integrated Business and Engineering programme prepares to leadership roles in industrial research and development and innovative technologies. Students enrol each year in personalised study programmes that consist of engineering sciences and business sciences. They work on interdisciplinary design projects in an international context that require engineering and business problem solving. A two-semester capstone design project focuses on team-based product, process and system design development in an international engineering business context.
The Computer Sciences and Business programme is a four-year joint-degree programme. It combines courses from both the computer sciences and business sciences programmes in combination with special integrative courses and projects where local and foreign students collaborate with teams of corporate sponsors.
The above programmes differ from the regular disciplinary programmes we are used to in Europe, and to most engineering programmes in the US. Graduates of these interdisciplinary and intercultural programmes are highly wanted because they have proven to master engineering and business and management skills. Graduates have learnt how to get things done in the right and rigorous way.
It confirms the statement of industrial keynote speaker Kathleen Taylor. She stressed that people can only develop leadership skills by immersing in uncertain and unexpected environments. Her motto was “Step away from what you know.” In the practice of engineering and design, technology is only about 50% of the work. Having a new product accepted by the customer, successfully produced and marketed requires another 50%. Employers for graduates of these programmes are consulting firms, risk management firms, companies in forensic engineering and computer auditing. Also large industrial multinationals such as General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Boeing score high.
Solving problems that matter
A unique programme is the Lehigh Mountaintop programme, a 5-week intensive interdisciplinary project for non-traditional students from all disciplines, engineering and non-engineering, national and international students. The project demands 24/7 non-stop thinking and action and radical ownership. Each project, originating from students, academic staff or companies, is about real meaningful subjects and centred around creativity, connections and creating value. The enthusiastic programme director Khanjan Mehta explained in an energising speech that all projects that run simultaneously, address the full spectrum of questions from “is it affordable”, “does it address a real need?”, “does it look sexy?”, “will it hurt environment?”, “will the product or service reach the end-user?”, “can you scale it up”? and so on.
Impact is all what matters. The credo is “First Do, Then Learn”. The projects are executed in a big hall, a creative space comparable to the TU Delft student’s DREAM Hall. Khanjan explained that the space acts as a magnet on the campus for staff, sponsoring companies and students while the projects are running. Many people meet and intermingle with the teams, from different backgrounds, disciplines, regions or countries, which results in interesting spin-offs for students, staff and university. Successes are celebrated and failures are shared to learn from. This year 15 projects had been selected out of a 50 submitted proposals. The single criterion for selection is the challenge of a new intellectual dive.
I am fascinated by the concept. Although the environment in my home university is very much different from Lehigh, I feel it might be possible to copy the interdisciplinary and intercultural DIY (Do It Yourself) concept and import an appealing and valuable elective module of about 15 EC (European Credits) into Master degree programmes. By collaborating with universities that offer liberal arts and social sciences programmes it must be possible to include broad and creative thinking about the many aspects of these projects. In our case we would have these partner universities within reach in the Global E3 network or in the direct neighbourhood of Delft, such as the Leiden University or Erasmus University Rotterdam.
“A failure is no failure anymore when you have shared it” (Khanjan Mehta)
Global classrooms: a model for virtual exchange
The meeting also addressed so-called virtual exchange opportunities. It is an approach where the external world is imported into interdisciplinary courses or projects in the classroom. I saw small-scale examples where discussions or assignments were shared between teams of students at home and at a partner institute. Another example was a research project by two partner universities that was completely run asynchronously due to a 9-hour difference in time zones. Students from one partner institute had to collect information about environmental conditons or traffic digestion that was specified by students of the partner university. They also got the assignment to process the data and report and present the analysis results back. Obviously the key issues were a good communication of formats, the specification of information, and the reporting of the analysis. Writing a data collection plan by students of institute 1 that was reviewed by students of institute 2; writing a data analysis plan by students of institute 2 that had to be reviewed and agreed upon by students of partner 1. Such collaborative efforts increase students awareness of intercultural communication and the different ways of working in different countries.
Interestingly, experiences in these projects showed that a difference in disciplinary perspective was often more important than a difference in culture. The question raised what impact such international collaborative experiences had on student motivation, study abroad interest in later years of study, and prospective career paths. No evidence was available. The presenters also made it very clear that staff is not always prepared to step up in such undertakings when the evidence of impact is uncertain, while it is very clear that there is a substantial extra effort for the staff.
Success is all about commitment and communication
Key enablers for all these types of projects remain a commitment of faculty staff and the willingness to collaborate, as well as curiosity and resilience of the students involved. From the discussions I learnt that any effort that is spent on arranging access to a common digital learning environments is often a waste of time. Today’s students have their own ways to communicate and collaborate: Google docs, Dropbox, Skype, Facebook etcetera are much more favourite than file sharing through electronic learning environments of Blackboard, Canvas or Brightspace.
I found it also remarkable to hear, that also in today’s hyper-connected world, success in distributed project work (more than one location) highly depends on a one-time face-to-face meeting with the project team members of the host and guest institutes, for students as well as staff. Face-to-face contact remains by far the best way to take away barriers in communication and creates a level of personal trust relation that cannot be achieved by whatever social media or e-moderation in online discussions. Indeed, engineering has always been and will remain a very social activity, and we often seem to forget.
On my way to Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) I had not expected the 2017 Annual Meeting of Global E3 would resonate with so many experimental and implemented innovations in engineering education that touch upon so many aspects that I address in the chapter “More than just cool technologies” in the second revised edition of my report “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World”. Future engineering education is about interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial mind-set learning, intercultural collaboration, global preparedness, mobility, diversity-in-thought, freedom of choice, the Do It Yourself approach, the importance of non-verbal communication, agility, reflection in packing and unpacking activities, and the remaining importance of face-to-face communication.
The sessions have given me new insights how we may accommdate more flexibility and freedom of choice in our engineering programmes in Delft. Flexibility and freedom that students can use to study abroad or to join interdisciplinary design or research projects while staying at home or in a foreign country, in international collaboration, and always learning about the different disciplines, habits and cultures.
In a separate post I will address the outcomes of a workshop I held at the Global E3 Annual meeting. It addressed the (preparations for) expected changes in engineering programmes over the next 10 to 15 years, with input from three European,three North-American, two Asian and one Australian engineering university: “Worldwide Perspectives of Adapting Engineering Education to Change”. To be continued.