Interdisciplinary Mini-Terms for Engineering Students
Thomas K. Jewell, Ph.D., P.E.
Professor of Civil Engineering
This paper describes the development and implementation of interdisciplinary Mini-Terms in several foreign countries. These Mini-Terms increase the ability of Union College graduates to enter the global engineering market, and to work in interdisciplinary teams. Union College has historically had a strong Terms Abroad program. However, the rigidity of the engineering programs prevented most of our engineering students from participating in a Term Abroad. The few engineers who managed a Term Abroad always came back and reported what a wonderful experience it was. After a 1997 revision in Union�s curriculum provided an opportunity for it�s engineering students to participate in a term abroad, the engineering division still needed additional programs that would expose engineering students to foreign cultures without requiring them to be away for an entire term. Therefore, engineering and liberal arts faculty developed interdisciplinary Mini-Terms. These involve a series of seminars at Union during the academic term prior to the Mini-Term, and three weeks of fieldwork in the country of interest during winter or summer breaks. The fieldwork is followed by preparation and presentation of comprehensive written and oral reports on an assigned topic by the teams of liberal arts and engineering students during the subsequent term. A team of one engineering professor and one liberal arts professor customarily leads the Mini-Term. Development of these Mini-Terms was aided by grants from the Keck and Christian Johnson Endeavor Foundations, but Mini-Terms are designed to be self-supporting through tuition funds after the grants run out. Student feedback shows that Mini-Terms are an effective means of introducing engineering students to foreign cultures they may have to deal with after graduation.
Over the past two years the author has undertaken some extremely interesting projects that bear directly on the ability of Union College graduates to enter the global engineering market, and to work within interdisciplinary teams. Union College has historically had a strong Term Abroad program. However, the rigidity of the engineering programs prevented most of our engineering students from participating in a Term Abroad. The few engineers who managed a Term Abroad always came back and reported what a wonderful experience it was. Therefore, one of the goals of a 1997 curriculum revision was to make it easier for engineering students to participate in terms abroad. The revision rescheduled required courses and increased the flexibility of the technical elective structure, while maintaining both breadth and depth of sub-discipline experience.
Engineering students still needed additional programs that would expose them to foreign cultures without requiring them to be away for an entire term. Therefore, several faculty representing both engineering and liberal arts developed interdisciplinary Mini-Terms. These involve a series of seminars at Union during a normal academic term, three weeks of field work in the country of interest during winter or summer breaks, followed by preparation and presentation of comprehensive written and oral reports on an assigned topic during the academic term following the field work. A team of one engineering professor and one liberal arts professor customarily leads Mini-Terms. The student teams also pair engineering and liberal arts students. Development of the Mini-Terms was aided by grants from the Keck and Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundations, but the terms are designed to be self-supporting through tuition funds after the grants run out.
The author has developed and led three Mini-Terms. The first, conducted in the summer of 2000, involved water resources and economics issues of Queensland, Australia, including studying the effects of development and water use on the Great Barrier Reef. The mix of students in this term included civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers, computer scientists, political scientists, economists, and even an English major. The author led a second Mini-Term to New Zealand in November � December 2001. Students studied the technology and economics of the various electric power generation schemes, the distribution system, and the deregulated electricity market. The mix of students in this term included civil and mechanical engineers, computer scientists, economists, and one political scientist. The author has developed a third Mini-Term that will travel to Cordoba, Spain in June of 2002. This Mini-Term will study the technology and cultural attributes that facilitated Cordoba�s role as the cultural center of Europe in 1000 AD. Other faculty have developed Mini-Terms in Brazil, Scotland, and France. The feedback from these Mini-Terms has been extremely positive, and the faculty involved have found them to be very rewarding experiences.
Union College has had a large and varied terms abroad program for many years. Approximately 65% of all Union students will participate in some type of foreign experience prior to their graduation. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 336 Union students went on a term abroad. The importance Union places on foreign experience is reflected in the general education requirements: students must take three courses in a foreign language; three courses in Africana, East Asian, or Latin American Studies; or participate in a Term Abroad program. Prior to 1997 engineering students were exempted from the requirement because it was felt the engineering curriculums were too rigid to allow large numbers of engineering students to participate in a Term Abroad or take three additional courses outside the engineering major. However, recognition of the increasing globalization of engineering led the Engineering Division to voluntarily succumb to the foreign study general education requirement.
During a thorough, top to bottom, curriculum review, the engineering programs were instructed to change their curricula to accommodate the new requirement. As an example of what was done, the Civil Engineering program realigned required core courses so the basic sub-discipline courses are finished by the Fall Term of the student�s junior year. Technical electives are grouped so a student can meet breadth and depth requirements and still go on a Term Abroad during any one of three terms: winter or spring of the junior year, or fall of the senior year. Some new terms abroad were developed specifically for engineering students to accommodate the increased numbers competing for slots. However, there was still a need for alternative means of satisfying the foreign experience without necessarily being away for a whole term. Thus, the concept of the Mini-Term was born, and the funding acquired to cover the development and initial offerings.
Mini-terms are worth one course credit, or the equivalent of a four semester credit-hour course. Twelve to sixteen students, approximately evenly balanced between engineering and the liberal arts, are selected for each Mini-Term offering. A series of seminars during the term before travel cover such things as travel briefings, cultural orientation, political and economic issues, language (if necessary), and the technology concepts and issues that will be the focus of the visit. Students select topics and interdisciplinary teams early in the process so they can do much of their research before departure. This helps them know what to look for and what questions to ask during the visit.
Grants from the foundations described previously have also provided funds for Mini-Term development. This has enabled at least one faculty member to travel to the host country and coordinate details of the program well in advance of student arrival in that country. These visits provide valuable information as to what should, and should not, be included in the final itinerary. Site reconnaissance visits also help start a dialogue with those who will be interacting with the students during their visit, and give the faculty member essential information that can be transmitted to the students during the pre-trip seminars.
Mini-Terms that are conducted from a central location don�t require a lot of travel, so the students are further immersed in the culture by living with host families. Whether students live with host families nor not, there are numerous cultural activities scheduled in which they interact with local citizens, professionals and indigenous peoples. For example, in New Zealand students attended a traditional Maori feast, and met with Maori leaders to discuss Maori land trusts and how they are working to better themselves economically. Students are required to keep a journal during the visit to record both technical details and personal observations of social, cultural, and political issues and events. The journal�s grade forms a significant percentage of the final course grade.
Students prepare a comprehensive report on their assigned topic during the academic term following the visit. The campus community is invited to listen to their final presentations, and Mini-Term students are encouraged to give their presentations again during the annual Steinmetz Symposium, a showcase for undergraduate research projects held in conjunction with Union�s Parent�s Weekend each spring. Since normal terms abroad involve taking three courses, the College has added the requirement that students take a second course cognate to the Mini-Term topic in addition to the series of pre-travel seminars. However, this requirement can be waived if there are no appropriate cognate courses offered by Union.
Presently the total student cost for a Mini-Term is the price of transportation to and from the host country and incidentals. All meals, lodging, transportation, and activities while in country are covered by the grants. Once the grants run out, each student will be charged a flat fee of $2,900 for a Mini-Term, in addition to transport to and from. The $2,900 is the normal cost of an extra course at Union.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Mini-Terms
Mini-terms allow students to gain knowledge of another culture while only being away from home for between three and four weeks. This is advantageous for students who have commitments, either academic or personal, that would prevent them from being gone for an entire term or semester. Mini-Terms are less expensive for the College to run than a traditional term abroad. The $2,900 fee is designed to make mini-terms self supporting after the grants terminate, while a normal term abroad costs the college the tuition paid by the student for that term.
The primary disadvantage of Mini-Terms is the short period of time the students are actually immersed in the culture of the foreign country. Is three weeks enough time to learn about the culture, or are these just glorified tours? Some faculty at Union believe the latter, while others, including most engineering faculty, feel they are an efficient way to introduce students to other cultures they may encounter after graduation. The true test is probably in the content of the pre-travel seminars. If they do their job, the actual time in country will be primarily a confirmation of what the students have already learned, and a good introduction to the culture of the country.
Why travel halfway around the world for a Mini-Term? There are several reasons why Australia was chosen as a host country. The first is the presence of an infrastructure in Australia to help develop, schedule, and manage the in-country part of the experience. Australian universities sponsor the Australearn organization, which coordinates numerous terms and semesters abroad for North American, European, and Asian universities. Once the sending institution has decided on the theme and content of the term, Australearn will do the legwork of scheduling speakers and facilities, coordinating home-stays, and reserving necessary room, board, and transportation. Australia also has many institutions and issues that are worth studying. Although it is classified as a developed country, it is still developing in relation to the United States. It is very interesting to study issues Australia is confronting now which were dealt with in the U. S. twenty or so years ago. And finally there is the language issue. Although some would say that the Australians speak a different language, it is still English, and with a few key translations U. S. students can understand what is being said. Since engineering students don�t have time in their curriculum to take many language courses, an English speaking country is a big plus.
The Australia Mini-Term concentrated on water resources and economics issues of Central Queensland. Students stayed with families for approximately one-half of the visit and spent the rest of the time traveling to study field sites. Some of the study topics included water storage and allocation issues associated with agricultural, industrial, and domestic water demands; management of hazardous waste sites, specifically acid mine drainage; enlargement and development of a deep water port adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, and development and exploitation of mineral resources, with emphasis on coal production and oil shale mining and refining. Some of the cultural experiences included stays at a cattle station in the outback and at a research station on the Great Barrier Reef, discussion and dinner with local families who would be directly affected by plans to enlarge a water storage reservoir, discussion of Aboriginal (indigenous peoples) views, rights, and claims with an elder of a tribe, and a visit to Sydney that included a tour of the Olympic facilities. Unfortunately, Australia is such a large country that a three-week stay only covered a tiny fraction of the whole area.
New Zealand Mini-Term
New Zealand was chosen as a Mini-Term location because from an engineering stand-point it has a very interesting mix of power generation types, including traditional thermal, combined cycle gas turbine, hydroelectricity, geothermal, and wind, but no nuclear. Their distribution system includes a 400 km high-voltage DC link between the North and South Islands. Historically the electricity generation, distribution, and retailing activities in New Zealand were State owned and run. However, over the past 15 years or so they have been systematically split up and privatized, and a competitive electricity market set up. There are many parallels, but also important differences, between the New Zealand system and the deregulated system in the U. S. Emphasis during the Mini-Term was placed on the technology, environmental issues, and economics of power generation, distribution, and marketing. New Zealand is small enough that most of the important sites could be visited in three weeks.
Because this Mini-Term involved considerable travel, no attempt was made to place students in homes. However, they did stay with New Zealand and other international students for the first few days of the term at the University of Auckland. During the rest of the trip the students interacted extensively with local citizens at site visits and overnight stops. Cultural activities included the previously mentioned Maori feast and interaction with tribal leaders, stops at museums to study Maori and New Zealand cultural and developmental history, and visits to a thoroughbred horse farm and a sheep station to discuss agricultural practices. The Mayor of one of the towns invited the group to morning tea and gave a briefing on the local situation.
Commonality of language was again a positive factor in selecting New Zealand for a Mini-Term. However, in this case there was no infrastructure in place to do coordinating and scheduling. This was accomplished by the Professors running the Mini-Term. Fortunately both of them had previously spent time in New Zealand so were familiar with the available accommodations and transportation networks. Rental of two 12-passenger vans took care of most transportation needs. Nevertheless, coordination of accommodations, meals, site visits, and speakers required follow-up throughout the trip. Purchase of a cell phone with prepaid minutes after arriving in country proved to be an invaluable resource. The systems are different; American cell phones will not work.
Cordoba, Spain Mini-Term
In the year 1000 AD, Cordoba, Spain was one of the premier cultural centers of the world. Its religiously and ethnically diverse population lived in relative harmony. Scholars in Cordoba made advancements in surgical techniques and instruments, and developed the use of many medicinal herbs. Its astronomers accurately observed and measured celestial phenomena. Early agronomists refined methods of irrigation, plant grafting, and crop rotation. Technology introduced by the Romans and Arabs was applied and improved to provide running water, sewers, hospitals, paved and lit streets, and beautiful promenades, gardens, and fountains. Cordoba developed as a cultural center despite being seven days journey from a port and not on any major trading routes.
The Mini-Term in Cordoba will investigate why this happened, and what parallels can be drawn with today�s world? Pre-travel seminars will cover a brief history and introduction to Spain, lectures and discussions on Islamic and Jewish influences in Spain, the science and technology involved in the infrastructure of the first millennium, and the social and cultural heritage of the Al-Andalus region of Southern Spain. The time in Spain will concentrate on fieldwork at various historic and archeological sites, and intercultural interaction with local college students. Side trips to gather additional information will include Merida, Segovia, Toledo, Granada, and Sevilla, Spain, and Lisbon and a number of other sites in southern Portugal.
Students will live and eat in university housing facilities with Spanish students. Each afternoon the Union students will meet with a group of Spanish students to discuss what they have seen and experienced, and to exchange cultural ideas. Spanish faculty, and in some instances spouses, will accompany the Union group on field trips and excursions. The Associate Dean from the University of Cordoba who is helping coordinate the activities while in Spain will visit the U. S. in April and meet with the selected students.
Cultural, Professional, and Interdisciplinary Interactions
Much of the cultural interaction has been described in the sections on each of the Mini-Terms discussed in this paper. Professional interactions occur through the guides and interpreters who either volunteer or are asked to show and explain the various sites and facilities to the students. These people encompass a wide range of technical expertise, all the way from bus drivers to plant managers, engineers, and sociologists. As often as possible they are also invited to social gatherings so they can interact with the students on an informal basis. It has been our experience that nearly all of the people contacted in host countries are more than willing to help out and meet with our students. They seem to be genuinely honored that we would travel all that distance to discuss their careers and work environment with them.
Interdisciplinary interactions occur among the engineering and liberal arts students in the Union College group. Personal observations, as well as student comments, have shown that the students learn a great deal from one another. They are brought together in a close environment in which they are forced to deal with each other�s idiosyncrasies and discipline biases. Viewing the group dynamics is very interesting. A good deal of group bonding takes place, but there are still factions that separate parts of the group in certain situations.
Assessment and Lessons Learned
Some of the students may not have been overseas before, and some may not have even flown on a plane. Therefore, it is important to give detailed briefings on travel and airport security requirements, applying for passports and visas, monetary exchange and what to expect when first arriving in the country. Other useful information includes how to call home cheaply, use of appliances in countries with different voltages and frequencies, and a list of emergency contact numbers for parents. To ease some of the anxiety, students should be met at the airport or train station and taken to their accommodations or the first group meeting. Faculty leaders must be prepared to deal with medical and other emergencies, so need to have some knowledge of the health and social care systems in the host country.
It is extremely important to get most of the background study and research on the host country and the assigned topic out of the way at home before departure. If the students complete their research before they leave, they will have a much greater understanding of what they see and experience during the three-week visit. Students also do not want to spend much of their precious three weeks in a classroom learning information that could just as easily have been presented at home. There has to be some lecture during the visit to take advantage of local experts, but as much as possible this should be integrated into fieldwork and site visits. Students need to be given sufficient free time to investigate the culture of the host country on their own.
Student assessments of the programs have provided much valuable feedback for improvement. For example it was student feedback that encouraged us to concentrate on fieldwork when in country and give the students adequate free time to immerse themselves in the culture. Sources of assessment data have included student questionnaires, reading of student journals, and personal conversations with the students after completion of the experience. The overall response has been extremely positive. A few quotes will provide the tenor of the comments:
�I�m so glad I had the chance to participate in the Mini-Term. This trip is something I will never forget. Besides having a great time and meeting a lot of wonderful people, I gained a great knowledge of the water resources and economics of Central Queensland. I think the program is excellent.�
�The whole experience has been amazing. I will never forget this. The focus of study for each group helped bring more questions out. Maybe one more week is needed. Thank you so much for this opportunity and experience.�
�Overall impressions of the trip were that it was very interesting and let me see the issues affecting Queensland. I enjoyed the opportunities to relate one on one to people and learn their culture that way. � Looking back on the 2� weeks I have been able to see a whole side of Australia that I wouldn�t have if I visited on my own.�
Long term assessment of the influence of Mini-Terms on the professional careers of Union graduates will be undertaken in the future. The first graduates who have experienced a Mini-Term have only recently entered the work force. Two or three years will allow them to reflect on what their Mini-Term experience really means to them, and how it has influenced them, both personally and professionally.
Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education Zone I Conference
United States Military Academy, West Point, New York