Russel C. Jones (
World Expertise LLC, USA

  Bethany S. Oberst (
James Madison University, USA 

Summary: The need to integrate international experience into the undergraduate education of US engineers has long been recognized.  An assessment of progress toward this goal over the past decade indicates that a few new programs have been implemented, including dual degree programs, the IIE’s Global E3 Program which sends students to study engineering abroad, and some distance learning initiatives.  But barriers to internationalizing engineering education still exist, including a lack of interest among US faculty in international activities. The concept of transnational competency may provide the basis for productive discussions between US engineering educators and their counterparts overseas.




In 1993, Dr. Russel C. Jones, then University Research Professor at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, USA, published “Formation of Engineers for International Practice” [10].  The paper outlined then-current efforts in the US for preparing undergraduate engineering students for international practice and argued for both strengthening these efforts and broadening them to include a much higher percentage of engineering graduates. Dr. Jones cited the University of Rhode Island, which offered students two simultaneous degrees, one in engineering and the other in German. In this program, students were required to take upper division technical courses taught in German, and to supplement their academic work with an extended internship in Germany.  Dartmouth University offered a similar program, emphasizing foreign language skills combined with work experience in the target foreign language.  The University of Delaware and the US Airforce Academy approached the issue by offering engineering students area and culture studies along with foreign language courses. And in 1993 Penn State began a dual degree program in engineering and either French or Spanish, with hope for expanding to other less-commonly taught languages.

Efforts at internationalizing engineering education in the US at the time of Jones’s research included the publication of An Engineering Student’s Guide to the Humanities and Social Sciences [4].  The Guide aimed at decreasing the randomness of engineering students’ selection of elective courses by suggesting ways to cluster them around a theme such as “international studies,” thus enhancing coherence and in-depth study of related subjects which would be useful for future practice.

The research for the original Jones article described practices in the States in the late 80s-early 90s.  And, as has been pointed out [15], many of Jones’s recommendations had already been implemented in Europe, for example through the Thematic Networks [12].  So we thought it would be helpful now, at the end of the decade, to return to the subject and determine what had changed in US engineering education to reflect the changing world order.  For the world has changed in the intervening years.  We have only to note the introduction of the Euro; the Asian financial crisis; record-setting employment figures in the US; growth of ethnic tensions; the spread of English; the penetration of technology including the emergence of distance learning; public pressure on US universities to become more efficient and effective; and a lessening of public and private support in the US for international education efforts. Given these changes, what should be the principles guiding the international formation of engineers? Has the call for preparing engineers better for international practice been heeded in the US to the level seen, for example, in the European Union? What have individual institutions and national organizations done to support the international education of engineers?


  Over the past few years public discussion in the US of the need and the outlook for international education has become deeper and richer.  Much of that discussion indicates that society is looking toward higher education to provide opportunities for students to gain global experience. 

In 1997 the Institute of International Education published Towards Transnational Competence: Rethinking International Education [9].  While this work focuses on US and Japanese interactions, it expands into a much broader consideration of principles and concepts behind current and proposed efforts at increased internationalization.  The concept of transnational competence (TNC) is defined as “ . . . the ability of individuals, organizations, communities, and governments to effectively cope with the rapidly changing transnational environment and to realize their goals.”  Six “core elements” of TNC are given:

·        Ability to imagine, analyze, and creatively address the potential of local economies/cultures

·        Knowledge of commercial/technical/cultural developments in a variety of locales

·        Awareness of key leaders (and ability to engage such leaders in useful dialogue)

·        Understanding of local customs and negotiating strategies

·        Facility in English and at least one other major language, and facility with computers

·        Technical skills in business, law, public affairs, and/or technology, and awareness of their different nature in different cultural contexts (TNC 5-6)

We compared this list with the list of thirteen job-related areas tested in the US Foreign Service Officers Program [2], cited in Jones’s original article.  Eight of those thirteen refer back to specific knowledge of the US as a point of reference. While admitting that knowledge of the US is important for US engineering students, the notion of transnational competence appears to add a needed dimension to the skills and experiences required of engineers in the coming decades.  Discussions of what should be included in TNC would provide US engineering educators a framework for productive discussions with colleagues in other countries about common goals for the engineering curriculum. 



The Institute of International Education’s annual survey of student mobility is not very encouraging [8]. While 481,280 international students studied in the US in 1996/1997, only 99,448 US students studied abroad.  And while 71,001 of those international students were in the US to study engineering, only 1,893 of the US students overseas were in engineering.  In 1991/1992, with 71,154 US students studying abroad, 1,138 engineering students did the same.  So while the number of US students studying abroad is increasing, and the number of engineering students tracks that increase, in absolute terms the figures are not positive.  What is encouraging is that students are diversifying their destinations for study abroad, with a significant decrease in those going to Europe, increases to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania, and the Middle East holding about steady. 

Some important corollary data have become available as a result of a survey done by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1991 and 1992 and made widely known recently in an article in Change [1].  When faculty from around the world were surveyed as to their interest in international contacts, US faculty were proven to be relatively less interested than their counterparts in other countries. “Internationalism and Insularity” says: “American faculty were . . . indifferent about further internationalizing the curriculum with only 45 percent agreeing that it should be done.” “The data also show that 65 percent of American academics . . . did not go abroad for study or research in the past three years.” (Altbach 54) While there was no breakdown of the data for specific disciplines, it is perhaps encouraging to find that faculty in large research institutions, where the majority of engineering education takes place in the US, are somewhat more internationally minded than their colleagues in other colleges and universities.  But if significant numbers of engineering faculty are not enthusiastic advocates for international programs, their students will not independently make the effort to integrate an international experience into their undergraduate curriculum. 



One of the most encouraging developments in educating US engineers for international practice has been the Global Engineering Education Exchange [7], known as Global E3, administered in the US by the Institute of International Education and in the EU by GE4. Global E3 was formed in response to the low participation of US engineering students in studies abroad opportunities.  The organization focuses mainly on US undergraduate engineering students, but graduate students from other countries may participate. As of April 1999, participants included 29 US institutions, 39 institutions from the EU (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and the UK), and six from non-EU countries (Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea and Turkey).  Each member institution pays an annual fee. Beginning in 1995-1996, eleven U.S. engineering students studied overseas under the Global E3.  That number has grown to 52 in 1998-1999, and is expected to reach 70 in 1999-2000.

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, although a strong majority of participants apply to the program having some knowledge of a language other than English.  Since the program began, 30% of applicants spoke Spanish, 23% French, 21% German, 4% Japanese, 17 % other languages, and only 6% no other language. France has proven to be the most popular destination, hosting 36 participants so far, followed closely by Germany. Wales, Denmark and Spain are the next most popular.  In addition to formal study, Global E3 encourages overseas internships as part of its program, but with only modest success [5].

To its credit, Global E3 has countered the trend of decreasing private and public support for international efforts by obtaining funding from the ATT Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Education, and the Ford Motor Company.

Although the numbers are small, the program has good potential for changing the way engineering programs think about international preparation for their students.  The IIE plans to work to organize international team-taught courses, and increase harmonization of the engineering curriculum.  As was noted before, the lack of support shown by US faculty for international education requires that the problem be approached as a faculty development issue as well as a student recruitment issue. And as information begins to come from the consortium’s assessment of its program, any indications of its positive impact on students’ careers, on curriculum effectiveness or on increased information sharing should attract other schools to the advantages of this approach.  As Gerhardt and Blumenthal wrote, “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 live outside of the U.S.”

Individual institutions have made some progress in encouraging international participation among their undergraduate engineering students, although there is no obvious groundswell of activity.  Postings on the Kettering University web-site reveal the presence of an all too familiar tension around the subject of international education [14]. While institutional statements at Kettering indicate support for international education, engineering students can earn only eight hours of credit for study abroad, thereby effectively limiting their interest in spending an entire semester overseas.  This same tension might be at the root of a curious fact we discovered while doing the research for this paper.  Of the 29 US Global E3 participating institutions, very few announced the availability of this program on their websites.  This leads us to think that while at one point opportunities for overseas study for engineering students were lacking, current barriers are lack of faculty and institutional support for study abroad, in the form of restrictive curricula, lock-step course sequencing, and lack of scholarship support.

Schools surveyed in the original Jones study, such as the University of Rhode Island, Dartmouth, the University of Delaware and the US Air Force Academy, continue to run their programs.  Penn State still offers its dual degree programs, but according to its web-site, has not yet expanded the languages beyond French and Spanish.

One of the most promising developments in international programming for engineers is distance education.  The engineering curriculum requires strong articulation across courses, intensive faculty involvement as mentors in undergraduate specializations, institutional deference to accreditation standards, and adequate access to instrumentation and lab facilities.  These requirements, some faculty may say, argue against permitting students to leave their home campus during the undergraduate years to study abroad.  But the worldwide web and e-mail provide opportunities not available a decade ago for internationalizing the curriculum.  To be sure, electronic communication is not the full equivalent of direct contact and experience living in a different culture.  But with the need so great for preparing future engineers for the global workplace, distance education projects can take an important step toward democratizing international education.

Our research has indicated that a small number of campus-based programs are already using distance learning techniques to provide international experience for their students.  Programs of this sort are currently in operation in the US at Union College [3], the University of Washington [11], Texas A & M University [6], and the University of Pittsburgh [13]. 

Fortunately, this idea is catching on.  Conversations with colleagues around the world indicate that various European and US universities are searching for appropriate case studies to present to electronically linked teams of engineering students for collaborative work. What are needed now are some successful and highly visible pilot projects to US focus attention on how technology can help expose students to the demands of the global environment.  The future lies with the development of distance learning approaches to simulate international aspects of the real world of engineering practice.



The good news is that over the past decade the arguments for preparing US engineers for international practice have become stronger.  In response, US higher education has made available more opportunities for undergraduate engineering students to study abroad.  Engineering institutions overseas have in turn become enthusiastic partners by expanding the numbers of engineering courses taught in English and by helping US students learn the culture and languages of their host countries.

The bad news is that the pipeline of undergraduate engineering students willing and able to study abroad does not appear to be filling up.  With opportunities available, the real barriers are now better defined:

1.      Lack of functional proficiency in a language other than English prevents students from taking advantage of many excellent study and work opportunities overseas.

2.      The engineering curriculum is still impervious to the demands of all but the need for increased technical competence.

3.      US faculty, including engineering faculty, are not in a position to become strong advocates for international preparation of their students since they themselves do not demonstrate much professional interest in the world outside the US.

4.      Scholarship money for students wanting to study abroad is still lacking.


In short, the pace is slow, but at least the direction is right. 



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2. Application for the Foreign Service Officer Program. US Department of State Publication #9950 (May 1993).

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4. An Engineering Student’s Guide to the Humanities and Social Sciences. Association of American Colleges (and Universities), Washington, DC (1988).

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