UICEE Annual Conference on Engineering Education
Hobart, Australia, 9-12 February, 2000
through Distance Learning Techniques
C. Jones, PhD., P.E.
World Expertise, LLC, USA
S. Oberst, PhD.
James Madison University, USA
Abstract: A new mechanism is being developed for expanding international exposure for undergraduate engineering and computer science students in the United States, using information technology and distance learning techniques. Technical students in the United States, in a few instances, have begun working on projects with similar students in other countries via electronic communications. This paper provides a rationale for having engineering students gain some international experience during their undergraduate educational periods, and points out barriers to getting such experience in traditional study abroad periods. It then cites several academic programs that are providing such experience via electronic means. Finally, the authors present a proposed direction to increase the use of distance learning techniques to provide international experience for American engineering students.
Russel Jones did a major study a few
years ago entitled “Educating Engineers for International Practice”. That
study, which was published in Liberal
Education in the fall 1995 issue (1) argues for the need for extensive
international exposure for United States technology students to adequately
prepare them for international practice. It is the conviction of the authors of
the current paper that such exposure is needed to keep the United States
engineering base competitive in an increasingly global marketplace. That need
has only increased since Jones’ earlier study was completed – yet we see too
little movement toward better preparing college graduates for the international
Constraints such as the intensity of the
undergraduate program foe engineers and the lock-step progression through the
four or more years of study weigh heavily against engineering students taking
advantage of traditional study abroad experiences. Traditional study abroad or
internship programs also tend to be quite expensive, again limiting the number
of engineering students who can or will participate. It should be noted, though,
that several engineering schools are conducting exemplary programs based on the
studies abroad model of sending students overseas. Examples of these programs
will be described later in this paper. But such effective programs currently
have much too little impact when the 300+ engineering schools in the United
States are taken as a whole. In its annual survey of student mobility, published
in Open Doors 1997-98 (2), the
Institute of International Education reported that only 1893 United States
engineering students had an international dimension in their education –
representing less than 2% of the U.S. study abroad students, and an even smaller
percentage of the current number of engineering students in the undergraduate
It is also relevant other developed
countries – such as those in Europe – prepare their engineering and computer
science students for international practice very effectively. As pointed out by
Simpson in 1997 (3): “Russel C. Jones article entitled ‘The World as
Workplace’ in the November 1996 edition of the ASEE journal presents a policy
which is being tried in Europe for a decade now”.
Knowing that engineering and computer
science students need more international experiences, and aware of the barriers
usually present in traditional study abroad programs, a few engineering schools
have begun using information technology and distance learning techniques to
provide some international exposure for their students. Such efforts are aimed
at overcoming some of the major barriers of study abroad such as high cost, the
constraints of a highly sequenced curriculum, and the concern of faculty that
their control of the educational process may be lost.
DRIVING FORCES FOR INTERNATIONAL
Many educators and practitioners have
stated the need for international exposure for engineering students. In 1980 at
a conference on New Directions in International Education, Burn and Perkin (4)
argued that “Expertise on the rest of the world is needed as never before in
government, business, and especially in the universities. … Increasingly
needed are specialists who combine foreign language training and international
studies expertise with training in professional fields …”.
More recently, Condit and Pipes (5) have
stated “The changing needs of an industrial world create a corresponding need
to improve and restructure higher instructions, particularly that of engineering
education”. And Pelkie (6) has written “Global competition has become a
business reality. To become competitive, we must improve the rate at which new
technical concepts are incorporated into our products and processes. …
Managers must recognize the impact that the technical education system has on
future innovative productivity and take the initiative to improve it”.
Fiedler et al (7) have argued that “Computer based information systems
have altered the meaning of traditional communication and coordination, making
global opportunities possible and global competition inevitable”.
STUDY ABROAD PROGRAMS
Engineering schools at several U.S.
universities are conducting exemplary programs based on the traditional studies
abroad model of sending students overseas. Worcester Polytechnic Institute,
which requires a major project of each student prior to graduation, has an
increasing number of such students fulfilling that requirement with an
international educational experience. Massie and Zwiep (8) point out that “
Project work in a foreign country provides a reasonably pragmatic way for
students to gain international experience”.
The University of Rhode Island
offers an even more intense international program for its engineering students,
combining language study in a foreign language, courses on the home campus in
that foreign language, and a work period abroad for an integrated international
experience. Grandin (9) describes the URI program, which culminates in joint
degrees in engineering and a foreign language.
Van Gulick and Paolino (10) have
described two key features which serve to internationalize the Lafayette College
undergraduate engineering curriculum: semester-long abroad study opportunities
in all B.S. engineering degree programs; and a five year, two-degree program in
which B.S. engineering students acquire in-depth knowledge of a foreign language
and culture and complete a semester-long capstone experience working abroad as
an engineer during their fifth year. A unique feature of the Lafayette programs
is the use of two-way video conferencing to offer necessary technical courses to
In 1983, the University of the Pacific
started sending its students to Japan for their Co-op placements. Based on the
experience and a similar program in Germany, a structured program for preparing
students for such international Co-op experiences has been instituted. Martin
(11) describes how the University has made available a plan whereby students can
take internationally oriented courses prior to their Co-op periods abroad, and
receive an ‘International Engineering Minor’ degree upon completion.
One of the most encouraging developments
in educating U.S. engineers for international practice is the Global Engineering
Exchange (Global E3), administered in the U.S. by the Institute of International
Education and in the European Union (EU) by GE4. Global E3 focuses mainly on
U.S. undergraduate engineering students, but graduate students from other
countries may participate. As of April 1999, participants included 29 U.S.
institutions, 39 institutions from the EU, and six institutions from non-EU
countries. Students in the Global E3 program spend one or two semesters studying
at a member institution overseas, paying tuition at their home institution only.
The host institution provides students with intensive language and culture
training. In addition to formal study, Global E3 encourages overseas internships
as part of its program. Beginning in 1995-96, eleven U.S. engineering students
studied overseas under the Global E3. That number has grown to 52 in 1998-99,
and is expected to reach 70 in 1999-2000. In describing the Global E3 program,
Gerhart and Blumenthal (12) have written “As other countries here recognize
the value of a U.S. education, we must recognize that globalization is part of
our very humanity, and that 96% of the global population lives outside of the
Many other engineering programs offer
variations on the type of traditional study abroad programs described above. It
must be kept in mind, though, that in the aggregate less that 2% of engineering
students in the United States currently partake of such programs.
As noted earlier, some of the economic
competitors of the United States in the global marketplace are currently more
effective in preparing their engineering graduates for international practice.
In the EU, the European Commission’s SOCRATES program provides mechanisms for
the cross-border study of a large number of students, including engineering
students. In describing such programs, Mulhall (13) notes that the SOCRATES
program includes groups of universities which have agreed to cooperate in a
program of educational development in a particular area such as engineering,
called Thematic Networks. A body called Higher Engineering Education for Europe
(H3E) was created to manage the Thematic Network in engineering. One of the
projects of H3E is the development of a European dimension in higher engineering
Weber (14) describes how engineering
schools in Europe are co-operating to develop a common definition of
qualifications needed by an engineer today. He notes that there is a growing
convergence in adopting English as the language of engineering instruction.
Augusti (15) writes that the rapid globalization of the professional job market
has created the need for an international system of recognition of degrees.
The European model for international
experience for engineering students is based on the traditional study abroad
movement of students. That approach appears to be highly successful there due to
the relatively short distances between countries, and the overarching framework
provided by the European Union.
Mechanisms for student to student
interaction across U.S. institutions have been developed and utilized by some of
the Coalitions funded by the National Science Foundation. The Synthesis
Coalition in particular has featured the development of electronic tools to
facilitate joint work by student groups on campuses thousands of miles apart.
Hsi and Agogino (16) describe the use of such advanced multimedia communication
mechanisms to teach engineering design across campus borders, utilizing
well-developed case studies. Gay and Lentini (17) further describe the advanced
communication resources used by students engaged in collaborative design
The use of the Internet has enabled both
teachers and students to lessen the burden of disseminating and acquiring
knowledge, according to Young (18). Even laboratory experiences can be enhanced
through electronic media. Karweit (19) has created a virtual engineering
laboratory on the World Wide Web for the students in his introductory
engineering class and others. Experiments in this simulated laboratory include
one that measures the rate of a hot object’s heat radiation, and one that
enables students to design bridges that will bear a specific weight. Fruchter
(20) has used information technology augmented distance learning to teach a
multi-site, project centered, team oriented course.
It is clear that information technology
and distance learning techniques are available to facilitate in-depth
interactions among students at distant campuses, including those across national
PILOT INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGES VIA
DISTANCE LEARNING TECHNIQUES
A small number of campus-based programs
in the U.S. are currently using distance learning techniques to provide
international experiences for their students. Programs of this sort are
currently in operation at such engineering schools as Union College, the
University of Washington, Texas A&M University, and the University of
Pittsburgh, for example.
At Union College, beginning with the
class of 2000, all engineering students are required to fulfill an
“engineering experience” requirement. As described by Bucinell et al (21),
“The ever increasing globalization of engineering practice has led to the
realization that undergraduate students must be made aware of the global nature
of the profession and the technologies that allow engineers the world over to
collaborate on projects”. Union
College engineering students can fulfill the international experience
requirement by a traditional term abroad, an international exchange to take
courses at foreign universities, an international term in industry, the virtual
term abroad, or an international project. The Bucinell et al paper describes the
development of an International Virtual Design Studio, wherein students from
Union College and the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Turkey were
joined as a team to pursue their senior design projects across international
boundaries and culture differences. Using a combination of interactive video and
Internet connections, the two parts of the team undertook a single design and
build project, sharing data bases and designs electronically. The team members
met each other in person at the end of the project when they came together in
Ankara to assemble the final design and participate in the design competition
with additional teams from METU.
At the University of Pittsburgh, a novel
format for an engineering design capstone course combines industrial experience
with international collaboration, and uses distance learning as a pedagogical
tool. As described by Rajgopal et al (22), the course links programs in the
Industrial Engineering Departments of the University of Pittsburgh and the
Instituto Technologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico. The team
of students from the two institutions conducts their design at an industrial
location that alternates between Mexico and the U.S. each year. The two groups
of students, and their faculty advisors, stay in touch by electronic mail, the
Internet, and distance learning technologies. During the last week of the term,
the full team comes together at the industrial location to present their work to
the faculty and the industrial client.
At the University of Washington, various
collaborations are being undertaken with engineering educators from the U.S. and
Japan. Kalonji (23) describes how engineering educators from these two countries
are working together to bring about a successful reform of engineering education
in the two countries, and to enable engineers to play a more pivotal role in the
shaping of the global economy. Student interactions between students in the U.S.
and Japan have resulted from this effort, using distance learning techniques.
Texas A&M University is employing
reciprocal distance education to promote internationalization of its
undergraduate engineering program. As described by Holland and Vasquez (24), the
Architectural and Construction Science Program at Texas A&M uses a model
containing three distinct components for adding an international dimension for
its students: insertion of an international dimension at the syllabus level;
integration of an international dimension at the curricular level; and immersion
in a foreign instructional environment. The first two components rely on the
Internet and videoconferencing technologies. The third component is a blend of
traditional study abroad programs with international internships and reciprocal
student exchange programs.
The North American Design Institute
(NADI) is a partnership of governments, universities and industries across North
America. As described by White (25), it involves two universities in each North
American country – Mexico, the United States, and Canada. These institutions
collaborate on a unique exchange program in engineering design to prepare
engineering students to better understand design in the context of cultural,
health, safety, environmental, and other international regulatory policies
throughout North America. A combination of students traveling to partner schools
for a semester, industrial work assignments, and interactions via the Internet
and the World Wide Web are utilized.
The driving forces for international
experiences for U.S. engineering students are substantial, and traditional study
abroad programs – while generally of desirable high quality – are having too
little quantitative impact to meet the needs of the bulk of such students.
Distance education methodologies offer the opportunity for engineering students
to get international experience in a cost-effective yet highly useful way.
Several engineering schools have developed pilot programs utilizing information
technologies and distance learning methodologies to offer international
experiences to students who are not readily able to travel abroad from their
It appears that the time to begin scale
up of the use of distance learning technologies to provide international
exposure for larger numbers of engineering students is at hand. The authors (26)
propose that a consortium of engineering schools be formed for this purpose. The
activities of such a consortium would include:
Illumination of the
current state of the art in the use of distance learning for international
programs in engineering
central mechanisms for developing case studies which can be utilized by teams of
Establishment of an
electronic database to facilitate international matching of engineering schools
with similar interests
Seeking funds to
develop the central mechanisms described above, and for demonstration projects
at several U.S. universities
It is anticipated that after such
demonstration projects, the central mechanisms developed would become
Such a project would overcome some of
the major barriers to study abroad, such as high cost, the constraints of a
highly sequenced curriculum, and the concern of faculty members that their
control of the educational process may be lost. It should, at steady state,
provide international exposure to significantly more than the 2% or so of U.S.
engineering students currently getting any international experience.
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