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International education prepares engineering students for global workplace

September 18, 2008

by Sandra Knisely

During University of Wisconsin-Madison materials science and engineering senior Sarah Treu’s interview with GE Aviation, company recruiters noticed an extra credential on her already impressive resume.

In addition to her engineering degree, Treu is pursuing a certificate in international engineering. “I think they were impressed that I had thought about engineering as a global career,” says Treu.

She got the job.

Treu is one of several students participating in an international engineering certificate program offered through the UW-Madison College of Engineering. Begun in 2005 after a suggestion by an advisory committee comprised of industry representatives, the program helps students study the language, culture, history, geography, society or institutions of a particular country or region of the world.

“The certificate underscores the important of international experience,” says Amanda Hammatt, director of international engineering studies and programs for the College of Engineering. “It acknowledges the importance UW-Madison places on that experience.”

According to Hammatt, only 20 percent of U.S. citizens have a passport.

In addition, citing the Institute of International Education “Open Doors” study, she says only 3 percent of engineering students nationally study abroad. As a result, engineering students with international experience stand out.

“If you can get into that niche, it opens up a lot of opportunities,” says Hammatt, adding that one in six jobs in the United States has an international component.

For engineering students, learning about different cultures is especially important because engineering has become a global field, says Don Schramm, a faculty associate in the Department of Engineering Professional Development. “The standard today is to have engineers working in time zones around the world,” he says.

Jim Davis, a professor of engineering professional development who directs the College of Engineering master’s and certificate programs in technical Japanese, says the beauty of the international engineering certificate program is its flexibility. Students take 15 credits of social science and humanities courses geared toward a country or region of the world that interests them.

The students also must work or study at least five weeks in their country or region of interest.

“We want people to actually spend some time in the country or region they are studying. We want them to get to know the people, experience the culture and practice interacting,” Davis says. “Significant international experience is important to make the program meaningful.”

The final component of the certificate is a capstone course called Current Issues in International Engineering. Taught by Schramm, the students write research papers and give presentations about a country or region. They can also explore the culture of a company or engineering discipline.

Schramm offers plenty of personal experience to students with international ambitions. He has traveled to almost 100 countries, mostly through his work with the UW-Madison Disaster Management Center.

In addition to Schramm, students learn about working globally from myriad guest lecturers, who “attend” class virtually, via Web conferencing technologies, from locations around the world. Alumnus Brian Price is one of the course guest speakers. Currently located in the United Kingdom, Price has worked as an engineering consultant around the world.

“The advantage of teaching and learning via the web is that it fits in with a 24/7 work life. I do a lot of international travel and never know what time zone I will be in next week,” says Price, who has lectured to the class from India, China, Korea and several European countries.

One certificate program alumnus calls Current Issues a “great course.” Garret Fitzpatrick focused on Russia and now works for the NASA Johnson Space Center.

He says the most important thing he learned was to appreciate cultural differences when approaching engineering.

“Different cultures have different attitudes toward work, professional etiquette, communications, cordiality and so on. It is important to understand all these aspects, especially when approaching a challenging multidisciplinary international engineering problem,” Fitzpatrick says.”Engineers are becoming increasingly global and soon I think it will be difficult to compete for jobs without having the international experience.”

Because students take Current Issues after going abroad, they are able to learn from each other in addition to Schramm and the speakers.

Jack Ho took the course in spring 2008. The biomedical engineering student concentrated on Hong Kong and the opportunities to work in the biomedical engineering industry there. In addition to Hong Kong, Ho has traveled to Cambodia, China, Great Britain and Germany.

Like Treu, Ho hopes the certificate program will set him apart after graduation. “I think the certificate will allow employers to see I’m not your average engineer, and I can be comfortable in various situations and can be sent to their various branches around the globe,” he says.

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