Engineering education takes a global approach

An increased appreciation of the value of diversity has helped fuel an emphasis on engineering education that includes international study and an overall global focus.

By Jane Zimmer Daniels, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board December 25, 2014

I began working in the College of Engineering at Purdue University in 1978 as an academic advisor for firstyear students and assistant director for the Women in Engineering Program. Twenty-three years later, I retired from Purdue to accept a position at the Henry Luce Foundation in New York City. I saw remarkable changes occur during those years, particularly in the areas of gender equity. In the 12 years since then, however, some true “sea changes” have occurred.

In this article I’d like to share my thoughts on these changes as they relate to the globalization of engineering education. During my tenure at Purdue, global understanding focused on study-abroad programs and collaborative research between an engineering professor in the United States and one or two professors in another country (usually the country where they lived or were educated). What a difference a decade makes.

By the latter part of the 20th century, engineering faculty members across the United States, for the most part, accepted the idea that the profession of engineering benefited from the inclusion of women of all races and ethnic groups, as well as nonwhite males. In spite of this increased valuing of student diversity, there was still a widely held conviction that a worthwhile engineering degree could be earned only from ABET-accredited engineering programs in the United States.

In the late 1990s I was the liaison for Purdue to the Global Engineering Education Exchange, an organization created to encourage study-abroad programs between the U.S. and Europe. Only one Purdue undergraduate participated in the program during the five years I served as liaison. He spent a semester at Graz University of Technology in Vienna. In spite of the strong reputation of this university, the student’s faculty advisors counseled him to take mathematics and some general education electives. They would not accept credit for any engineering courses taken at Graz. This was a common experience for undergraduates in the United States. It was also the case that most U.S. engineering students were interested in study-abroad programs in English-speaking countries or at universities where European faculty members would teach in English if there was even one student in the course who did not speak the language of the host country. The attitudes of the European students who wanted to come to Purdue were entirely different. They all spoke at least two languages (one being English) and their professors expected (often required) them to take a full year of study in another country.

I can’t put a finger on any one event or individual that brought about changes in attitudes, policies, and practices at Purdue, but change occurred — BIG TIME. A “perfect storm” seemed to form at Purdue at the beginning of the 21st century. Dean of Engineering, Leah Jamieson, Ph.D., well known for her progressive and creative approaches to engineering education, encouraged faculty and administrators to develop new thinking about educational issues. The College of Engineering at Purdue had long been recognized for its diversity efforts. The first Women in Engineering Program and Minority Engineering Program in the United States were created at Purdue in 1969. Perhaps the dramatic advancement of globalization in engineering education at Purdue was simply a broadening of initiatives focused on diversity.

Lest I be accused of being too egocentric about Purdue in regard to the globalization of engineering education, I’d like to assure the reader that these “sea changes” have occurred at many other engineering programs throughout the United States, as well. One extraordinary expansion of globalization in engineering education occurred in 2006 with the creation of the UM-SJTU Joint Institute, representing a strategic global partnership between the University of Michigan (UM) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). The Chinese government and both partner universities are fully committed to developing JI as a world-class institute for engineering education. The joint institute encourages UM students and SJTU students to move more freely between the two universities. The institute provides a very real example of the University of Michigan’s global presence.

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Bill Clinton, and Lester Gerhardt, Ph.D., professor, computer science at RPI and co-founder of the Global Engineering Education Exchange Program, led RPI to make a unique commitment to globalization when RPI announced in 2008, “To better prepare tomorrow’s leaders with the global perspective and multicultural sophistication that will be necessary to tackle the grand challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will now expect all undergraduate engineering students to participate in an international experience.”

The increased interest in global understanding can be seen through new developments in undergraduate education common to many engineering schools in the U.S.:

  • Faculty who encourage study abroad
  • A minor in global understanding (different universities use different terms for the minor)
  • Work abroad
  • Research experiences abroad
  • Global service learning experiences
  • Multicultural engineering student organizations
  • Elective courses to increase appreciation and understanding of other cultures
  • Guest speakers to address globalization and its impact on the engineering profession and engineering-focused companies

A national reflection of engineering education’s global presence can be seen in the American Society for Engineering Education’s Annual International Forum established in 2012. This forum brings together engineering professionals from around the globe who are engaged in novel engineering education initiatives to share information on experiences and best practices.

Similar to programs and progress in gender equity, I believe the changes in globalization in engineering education were accelerated by the interests of engineering-intensive corporations. Corporate members of engineering advisory boards and corporate representatives providing funding to engineering departments and colleges pushed educators to provide graduates who were prepared to be effective in multicultural and multinational environments. It has been enormously satisfying for me to see these changes in attitude, values, and practice. I believe that diversity, whether of gender, race, culture, or any other factor, will benefit the profession of engineering as it faces future challenges of importance to the entire world.

-You can view the original article here. Edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, digital project manager, CFE Media,