May 9, 2007 -- When University of Virginia Engineering Student Council President Emily Ewell was asked to apply her engineering knowledge to solve a real-world problem for her “Engineering in Context” capstone project, she immediately knew what problem she wanted to tackle: studying abroad.
Traditionally, engineering students have had an especially difficult time making a semester abroad work with their jam-packed academic schedules. “Engineering is different,” Ewell said. “There are unique challenges — like the sequence of courses in the engineering curriculum — that can make studying abroad more difficult for engineers.”
So Ewell, together with capstone project teammates Allison Hastings, Louise Montgomery and Marta Morales — all fourth-year students graduating later this month — set out to make international experiences easier for U.Va. engineering students.
The result is the innovative Curricular Design Tool, an Internet database of all possible study abroad opportunities that works in concert with engineering degree requirements. The CDT 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.
“This new resource … will open doors for students in every major,” reads the team’s final paper. “We should begin to see increases in the number of students going abroad as early as next year, now that there is one centralized location for the information they need to incorporate an international experience into their education.”
At the outset of the project, the team met with U.Va. administrators and International Studies Office staff to discuss the development of international study programs designed specifically for engineers. Next, the team conducted a survey of 20 percent of U.Va. undergraduate engineering students (292 students) to determine their level of interest in having an international experience, the reasons behind their interest, their perceived obstacles and more.
The results of this survey, which reached between 19 and 26 percent of students within each engineering department, revealed 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, U.Va. engineers want to study abroad — with the reported goals of cultural awareness and perspective, travel, personal growth, educational growth and perspective, and professional development — but overwhelmingly do not due to a variety of perceived obstacles.
James H. Aylor, dean of the U.Va. Engineering School, agrees. “Every U.Va. engineer should have an international experience,” Aylor said. “With this innovative resource, the first of its kind designed specifically for engineering students, our students will find it much easier to study and intern abroad — and at the same time gain an understanding of engineering and societal problems on a global scale.”
The beta version of the tool is available at http://www.seas.virginia.edu/studyabroad/.