U.Va. Engineering Goes Global: New International Programs Office to Enrich and Globalize Engineering Education

Oct. 12, 2007 — Engineers are increasingly being called upon to solve the world’s problems — as the globe’s traditional energy sources become depleted, water resources need improvement and a growing elderly population encounter unique challenges. As a result, today’s engineering students need a truly global education, complete with rich and diverse international experiences, like never before.

Thanks to a new initiative in the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, U.Va.’s engineering students will soon have just that. Established this fall, a Engineering School International Programs Office will identify and create study abroad and internship programs specially designed for U.Va. engineers. Led by Dana M. Elzey, the school’s director of international programs and an associate professor of materials science and engineering, the Engineering School International Programs Office will collaborate with the University’s International Studies Office to enable more engineering students to enhance their education with an international experience.

“Every U.Va. engineer should have an international experience,” says Engineering School Dean James H. Aylor. “It is essential that we provide international study options to our students so that they have an understanding of the global impact of the solutions they develop as working engineers.”

While the school has steadily increased its overseas offerings in the last decade — including partnerships and exchange programs with multiple universities in China, an ongoing Cognitive Systems Engineering Exchange Program in Brazil, several independent and sponsored student projects throughout South Africa and more — it has traditionally proven difficult for engineering students, with especially rigorous curricula and a highly defined sequence of courses, to study abroad.

In a survey of 20 percent of Engineering School students last spring, 2007 U.Va. graduates and capstone teammates Emily Ewell, Allison Hastings, Louise Montgomery and Marta Morales found that while 85 percent of undergraduate engineers would like to have an international experience, 74 percent think such an experience is impossible for them to achieve, and only 1 percent actually do study abroad. In short, engineering students want to study abroad — with the reported goals of cultural awareness and perspective, travel, personal growth, educational growth and perspective, and professional development — but have not in the past due to perceived obstacles.

Thanks to the students’ capstone project, which culminated in the creation of an online Curricular Design Tool, U.Va. Engineering students will now encounter one less major obstacle. Now offered through the Engineering School International Programs Office, the tool is an Internet database of all possible study abroad opportunities that works in concert with engineering degree requirements. The database allows engineering students to select their major and class year, enter the maximum number of credits they are willing to take in any given semester and check off the courses they have already taken. Then, the student simply hits the submit button, and a schedule of his or her classes — incorporating a semester abroad — appears, taking guesswork and undue frustration out of the equation.

Elzey, who recently led a summer “Engineering in a Global Context” course for Engineering School students in Germany, says innovative offerings like the Curricular Design Tool are critical to making international study as widespread and worthwhile as possible for engineeering students.

“There is something wonderful that happens when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory and you have a new language to learn or a new culture to understand,” Elzey says. “You grow and change in ways that may be difficult to predict but that are unforgettable.”

Check out the Engineering School Curricular Design Tool at www.seas.virginia.edu/studyabroad.

About the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science
Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University’s highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology. For more information, visit www.seas.virginia.edu.