Engineering students face more obstacles to studying abroad than do students in many other fields, UD administrators and faculty say, but those challenges have not kept them at home.
One difficulty is that the highly structured curriculum of most engineering programs, with only a limited number of nontechnical electives, does not easily lend itself to the traditional study-abroad format. Another is that the engineering courses taught in European universities are not equivalent to those taught here.
Dirk Veenema, EG 2003, a mechanical engineering major who spent a summer doing research at Imperial College in London, points out that engineering courses there are commonly taught from an applications viewpoint, while in the United States, they tend to be more conceptually based. Thus, while British students might take a course in engines, their American counterparts take thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, topics that apply to engines but also to other mechanical systems.
UD engineering students who want to study abroad have risen to these challenges. Some choose to participate in traditional overseas programs in areas outside the engineering discipline. For example, Don Scholz, EG 2003, completed a Department of English program during the 2002 Winter Session, studying drama and British culture in London. Each of the two courses he completed fulfilled a humanities requirement for his civil engineering major. Scholz, who was active in theatre in high school and is involved in music at the University, says the program was a dream come true, providing an opportunity for him to visit museums and galleries and attend more than a dozen plays while earning academic credit.
Other undergraduates, with help from creative faculty and administrators, have taken part in a variety of programs developed for engineering students who are interested in an international experience.
Exchange program immerses students in research
While traditional study-abroad programs may be rare in the field of engineering, students in these disciplines at the University have an exceptional opportunity to participate in an alternative "research abroad" experience. The Imperial College-University of Delaware Undergraduate Research Exchange Program was created more than 15 years ago to meet the needs of an honors chemical engineering student who wanted to conduct research abroad but could not allot a semester for that purpose.
In 1986, Joan Bennett, coordinator of UD's Undergraduate Research Program, and J.C. Anderson, an engineering professor at Imperial College of the University of London, partnered to form the program, which sends about five UD students every summer to Imperial College and five of that college's students to Delaware. A renowned British university of science, technology and medicine, Imperial College has been referred to as "the MIT of Europe."
Unlike traditional study-abroad programs, which offer classes augmented by trips and tours, the UD-IC exchange is a summer research "immersion experience," according to Bennett. "The students are offered much more independence and closer-in contact with people from other cultures," she says. "Being in London as part of a research team gives them a place and an identity in the foreign location, allowing them a closer vantage point, yet they still have each other to compare notes with."
Alison Conway, EG 2003, a civil engineering major who participated in the exchange last summer, agrees with Bennett's assessment. "It was a great opportunity to live in one of the most diverse cities in the world while doing research related to my studies here at UD," she says. "We lived and worked with people from all over the world at Imperial.
"The research that I did there offered a completely different perspective on structures from my research here at UD. It was interesting to discuss with my adviser the differences in the ways the British and Americans handle the same situations. My adviser there was great. He spent a lot of time with me at the beginning of the summer to make sure I fully understood the project and then gave me more freedom to work on my own once I got beyond the basics."
Conway says her adviser also helped and encouraged her to experience the city and British culture outside of work. "Spending the summer at Imperial definitely made me more aware of the universal applications of civil engineering and gave me a greater appreciation for the world beyond America's borders," she says.
Dirk Veenema, EG 2003, also took part in the IC exchange program last summer, doing research on fuel cells. He says the experience has had a two-pronged benefit.
"Doing research forces me to wrestle with my class material long after I've learned it. It makes me go back and think about it in a whole different way," he says. "I've also learned a lot about the research process itself. For example, I've come to realize that everything takes about four times as long as I thought it would."
That's a lesson you can't get in the classroom.
Professor capitalizes on collaborations
Norman Wagner, professor of chemical engineering, also has taken the international experience out of the classroom and into the research laboratory, in an approach that is less formal than Bennett's program.
"My experience has been that one-on-one contacts are a very effective way to get undergraduates involved," he says. "In our department, the opportunities for students to work in university or industrial labs overseas are very much research-driven. The reputation of our department attracts students from countries like Germany and Switzerland to come over here to conduct research with us, and in turn, our students are offered the opportunity to visit those countries for winter and summer internships."
Wagner says traditional study-abroad programs often start students thinking about going overseas to perform research and getting involved in engineering-related projects.
"At this point, they've decided they want to go beyond being abroad with a group of other Americans in a program," he says. "They're interested in branching out and being on their own. They have to be able to function in another culture and another language, but it's a great experience to position them in what has become an increasingly 'smaller' world, with companies operating globally rather than just locally or nationally."
Martin Convey, EG 2003, is one of Wagner's chemical engineering students who opted to take this route. During the summer of 2001, he worked at the ETH, a technical university in Zurich, Switzerland, where Wagner had spent a sabbatical leave in 1997. "It was an incredible experience," Convey says. "I love languages and the European culture, and I wanted to combine those interests with an engineering experience."
Convey worked in the materials science department at ETH, studying the rheology of polymers. The area he was investigating was a completely new topic, so he spent the first month conducting basic experiments. "But, by July and August, I got into things that had never been tried before, and it turned out to be a very successful project," he says.
The experience made such an impression on Convey that he opted to delay graduation and spent the entire 2001-02 academic year in Germany on a grant from the German-American Clubs Foundation. He has been offered a position next summer with BASF, a major materials supplier and chemical concern in Germany that supports Wagner's research and has hired his students in the past.
"When you start with a bright, motivated student, there are lots of opportunities out there," Wagner says. "It's far more than just getting an engineering job for the summer. Students come out of it with a whole cultural and linguistic advantage."
College launches a traditional study abroad
When Prof. Ismat Shah and his students arrive in Bremen, Germany, in January 2003, they expect to feel right at home. Bremen, the smallest state in Germany, has a population size and climate that are almost identical to Delaware's. But, the culture and the educational climate will be markedly different from what the students typically experience on the UD campus, Shah says.
Shah, who holds joint appointments in the departments of Physics and Astronomy and Materials Science and Engineering, has organized the University's first study-abroad program in engineering. Students who complete the Bremen Winter Session program will take two three-credit courses, "Materials Science for Engineers" and "Topics in Modern European History," which fulfills a group requirement for engineering majors. Students will complete the one-credit lab portion of the engineering course after they return to UD.
Shah acknowledges that programs such as this one are rare at U.S. institutions, due largely to the rigorous nature of the engineering curricula at most schools. "Some engineering students do complete a semester abroad," he says, "but it's usually to study subjects like history or art or language. However, I think the fact that engineering students are so focused makes it even more important for them to participate in a program like this. It broadens them and diversifies their outlook."
Shah says the academic component of the program will be intense, fitting "an entire semester of material into one month." Classes will take up most of the day, but nights and weekends will be dedicated to tours of industrial sites, museums and historical areas of Bremen, Berlin and other nearby cities.
"Bremen is a center for the ship-building, automotive and aerospace industries," Shah says.
Shah initially had the program ready to go in January 2002, but the Sept. 11 attacks forced him to cancel. A year later, he says he is even more eager to launch the program and hopes it will be offered regularly during future Winter Sessions.
"I'm really looking forward to attending the history class along with the students," he says. "We'll be looking at German history from World War I to the present, which I think will be incredibly interesting for me as well as for the students."
Shah's program may be the first of its type in engineering at UD, but others are in the works. Leonard Schwartz, professor of mechanical engineering, has had a collaborative relationship with researchers in Australia for almost three decades, including spending a sabbatical in that country and hosting Australian students at UD. He plans to organize a Winter Session study-abroad program in 2004 at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.
--Diane S. Kukich, AS '73, '84M