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UNITED STATES
Engineers with a foreign language build global bridges
The University of Rhode Island’s innovative International Engineering Program (IEP) is designed to give graduates a global marketplace edge – adding to a BSc in an engineering discipline a BA in one of four languages: German, French, Spanish or Mandarin. It recently won a Heiskell Award, one of the Institute of International Education’s highest honours.

At a time when language programming is falling prey to budgetary axes everywhere and global companies are crying out for qualified engineers, the IEP stands out as being “inspired and dramatically successful”, noted Allan Goodman, CEO and president of the Washington DC-based institute.

Since 2001, the Heiskell awards have applauded the efforts of institutions and organisations that realise the goal of higher education internationalisation through innovative programming and initiatives by member universities and colleges.

Specifically, these are programmes that encourage the creation by international education professionals of study and collaborative opportunities, ensure that international education is at the forefront of education policy, and – in particular – showcase the benefits of study abroad and international educational exchange to the general public.

In 2012, the emphasis has been on “initiatives that remove institutional barriers and broaden the base of participation in international teaching and learning on campus,” explained Goodman. The winning programmes in four categories are showcased on the IIENetwork Best Practices website, and the awards will be presented at a conference on 9 March.

The University of Rhode Island’s IEP distinguished itself from the others in the ‘study abroad’ category.

“It is very rare to see a programme combining language and engineering,” Goodman said, adding: “In fact, those that foster engineering collaboration are particularly important in light of the global issues we face today.

“The University of Rhode Island’s IEP is one of these – in responding to the need to encourage academic collaboration and innovative partnerships not only among our nation’s universities, but also on a global scale. Programmes like this are helping to internationalise our campuses – to ‘open minds to the world’.”

How it all began

Even in 1987 it was clear to John Grandin, emeritus professor of German language and literature at the University of Rhode Island, and the then dean of engineering Hermann Viets, that the demands of the global economy justified the creation of the IEP.

Both recognised that the traditional language training paradigm lacked applications at advanced levels for students in other disciplines.

But more than this, explained Grandin: “The IEP was built on the observation that the world of business and technology was becoming more and more international and that engineering students would need special training for that reality.”

The IEP’s model, unchanged since its inception 25 years ago, is that of a five-year dual bachelor programme in which students complete a language major alongside the usual engineering curriculum requirements.

In order to reinforce nascent language skills, students embark on synchronous study of and work in both disciplines in a country of their choice during the fourth year. The first six months of study at the partner university are followed by a paid internship at an affiliated company for the remainder of the year.

This internship, said Executive Director Sigrid Berka, is what makes the IEP such a “powerful model. It gives engineering students a purpose and an incentive to enrol in language classes.”

Indeed, the internship is “the cornerstone of the programme. Students are interning with engineering firms in the foreign language for six months. It is when they actually get to use their technical as well as linguistic and cross-cultural skills as well as practice becoming an ‘international engineer’.”

She told University World News: “If you look at the linguistic gains made when studying abroad, the highest apply to those studying and applying the language in an area of passion or interest during long-term immersion programmes.”

The first – and still most popular – partner university is one of Germany’s top nine technical universities, the Technische Universität Braunschweig. But today, students can also study at other internationally renowned technical institutions in France, Québéc (Canada), Spain, Mexico and China.

It is not surprising that unparalleled study-work experiences and a wealth of networking connections have ensured that this integrated programme boasts a graduate employment rate of nearly 100%.

Global giants such as BMW and Johnson & Johnson, as well as mid-sized or small local enterprises like Sensata Technologies and Supfina, value the fact that IEP graduates can be used as ambassadors across linguistic and engineering cultures and mediate effectively between headquarters and their parent operations or subsidiaries abroad.

In keeping track of real world needs, the IEP has achieved outcomes few programmes are able to deliver: culturally flexible and mobile engineering professionals who can and will succeed in the global marketplace.

Attraction for students

Fairfax, Virginia native Payam Fahr’s interest in the IEP was first piqued by the fact that fewer than 3% of all American engineers study abroad – but it was the internship that was the real draw.

In his fourth year, he studied initially at the technical university and its affiliated Institute for Automotive Engineering in Braunschweig. Thereafter, Fahr embarked on an internship at the BMW Research and Innovation Center in Munich where he was able to pursue his real passion: that of automotive racing.

“Overall, the internship was the best experience of all,” he explained: “The IEP offers more than just an academic track for two degrees, it allows one to gain international and cross-cultural life experience which is absolutely precious in this day of globalisation.”

Fahr summarised his experience: “It provides opportunities and life experiences – something more valuable than just the piece of paper one receives after a period of studies.”

These kinds of positive experiences help also to explain why the IEP is not as dominated by men as many engineering courses. Women represent nearly 30% of the programme’s total enrolment but account for only 17% of the overall cohort in the college of engineering.

Raena Morley, a chemical engineering and French major, spent her fourth year abroad with the IEP studying first at the tUniversité de Technologie de Compiègne and then interning for six months with Toray Plastics in Lyon, France.

Part of her decision to enrol in the IEP was to study abroad in a foreign language. Engineering was the way to make that happen, she told University World News:

“I had always dreamed of studying aboard, and this programme presented the perfect opportunity to do so. In fact, it allowed me to pursue engineering without foregoing the liberal arts.”

Attempting to explain why it appealed to her – and perhaps to other women in the programme – Morley noted that “the IEP brings something to the table for both sides of the brain: although undertaking a double major definitely increased my course load, the French courses often served as a welcome escape from the (seemingly) endless engineering calculations!

“I am positive that I would not have had the same experience with any other engineering programme elsewhere,” she stated emphatically.

* For more information about the IEP see John M Grandin’s Going the Extra Mile: University of Rhode Island engineers in the global workplace. Wakefield, RI: Rockland Press 2011.

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