A month-long course with China as its classroom

Curtis Chan
October 27, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The steep, uneven stones make the journey up China’s Great Wall more of an ascent than a leisurely stroll for a group of Penn State students. The weather doesn’t offer much encouragement with unusually cool temperatures and breezy conditions.

But neither can lessen the enthusiasm of the Penn Staters, who are relishing their visit to this ancient engineering marvel.

The trek is part of ENGR 118 Impact of Culture on Engineering in China, a course that immerses students in Chinese culture and history and is a tour de force of many of the country’s most famous ancient and modern sites.

Offered during Maymester, the three-week period after spring semester and before the start of the first summer six-week session, ENGR 118 is, for many, their first global experience.

Because it is a 100-level course, it is open to all students, not just those who are in the College of Engineering, said Xinli Wu, assistant professor of engineering and the course’s instructor. Students must apply for the course the fall semester before, and the application includes a questionnaire with a minimum 2.0 grade point average.

Wu added that the class can be used to satisfy students' international cultures (IL) or social and behavioral sciences (GS) degree requirements.

“I figured I would never get a chance to get to China on my own and experience it for a month,” said Will Haunstein, an aerospace engineering sophomore. “I figured it would be an awesome experience. It’s something you can talk about forever.”

Mechanical engineering senior Lola Buonomo said, “It sounded like a neat opportunity — I always wanted to see Asia. Reading the itinerary, there was no way I’d have the ability to do all of those things by myself or with friends. It was a perfect structured way to see all of China.”

Once they arrive in China, It’s a dizzying month for the students. They spend five days in the Chinese capital before heading to the northeast to take in one of the country’s newest cities, Dalian. That’s followed by a flight to Xian to see the Terracotta Army. From there, a train takes the class to Yichang, where the students visit the Three Gorges Dam. There they board a cruise ship that takes them through the gigantic locks of the Three Gorges.

For five days and four nights, the class cruises along the Yangtze, examining how the dam’s construction has changed life along the mighty river. The cruise also offers the Penn Staters a much-needed respite from the course’s breakneck pace.

At the cruise’s terminus in Chongqing, students spend two nights in the city before spending four days in Huangshan and finishing in Shanghai.

The cost of the course is approximately $4,900, not including the flight to and from China.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s much less expensive compared to organizing a similar itinerary on one’s own. Wu said the money covers nearly everything for the students — tuition fees, lodging, transportation (which includes two flights within the country, as well as the cruise, train rides and buses), admission fees for museums and historical sites and a large number of the meals.

“I’m hoping some company will eventually sponsor this program so that students don’t have to pay as much to go to China,” Wu said.

Despite the expense, Kate Waskiw, an industrial engineering sophomore, said she thought the class was potentially valuable enough to turn to her parents for help to make the trip a reality.

“I asked my parents and they knew it was really expensive, but they knew I would never get this opportunity again,” she said. “But this is basically my birthday present for the next four years of college!”

Over the past six years, Wu has taken a cohort of more than two dozen students each year to China during Maymester.

Once there, the students are exposed to a mix of the old and new. The class takes in nearly all of the must-see ancient Chinese landmarks, including the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and Terracotta Army.

But a large portion of the journey is devoted to the new China as well, including the Three Gorges Dam; the famed “Bird’s Nest” Beijing National Stadium and “Water Cube” National Aquatics Center from the 2008 Summer Olympics; high-speed trains; and the 22-mile-long Hangzhou Bay Bridge, the world’s second longest bay bridge.

For students, it’s a fascinating study of the past and future and how ambitious engineering projects have always been a part of the country’s DNA.

“I learned how engineers here made the impossible possible here in China while keeping in their culture,” said engineering sophomore Paul Perreault.

Caroline Deakins, an engineering sophomore, added, “A structure isn’t only a structure. It’s the intent, what it does for the people and how it reflects the culture and the necessity.”

That’s one of the key lessons of the class, Wu said. And though it’s a rare experience to hike up the steep, uneven cobble steps of the Great Wall or sail through the massive staircase locks of the Three Gorges Dam, the class goes beyond engineering, he said.

“It’s about globalization,” Wu stated. He explained that a class taught in the United States could competently cover the ins and outs of designing and building something like the Great Wall or Three Gorges Dam, but nothing can really match lessons learned first-hand overseas.

“In China, the students learn about cultural etiquette such as table manners,” Wu said. Though that may sound silly on the surface, “eating culture is a big deal in China. A lot of business is negotiated over dinner. If you don’t do things right, you may have an awkward moment.”

For example, accepting a business card in China is a small ritual. The recipient, Wu said, must accept the card with two hands and thank the giver. To take a business card with one hand and slip it into a pocket is considered disrespectful.

“It’s very hard to sit in a classroom environment and teach these cultural elements,” he said.

As part of the trip, the students are required to bring formal attire for dinners with Chinese CEOs so they may practice their newly acquired etiquette.

“Learning by seeing and doing makes it very hard to forget,” Wu said. “Because of globalization, many companies value potential employees with global experience.”

Connor Leavitt, an industrial engineering sophomore, agreed. “It’s one thing to see all of these great engineering accomplishments like the Great Wall, Three Gorges Dam, Terracotta Warriors. Anyone can see that. But going on this trip has really taught me the culture of China, getting a first-hand experience with going to dinners, meeting people, experiencing how to do things correctly, who sits where, how to accept business cards — everything.”

For a majority of the students, the course changed not only their outlook on the world, but also how they viewed of themselves.

“I feel like I learned a lot, not just about engineering and Chinese culture, but about myself. I became more independent,” Deakins said. “I might not remember all the history or how long it too for something to be built or what dynasty things happened, but I really liked the simple moments in China, like when you reached for the dumplings and everyone’s having trouble grabbing it and you successfully grab it with chopsticks the first time, or when you barter with someone to get a necklace from 90 Yuan down to ten, or when you’re walking down the street and you lose yourself in the culture and your surroundings. Those were my favorites.”

The sophomore continued, “You had moments where it hit you — ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in China.’ You want to try to take it all in.”

Students interested in participating in 2015 may apply for the course at https://gpglobalea.gp.psu.edu/index.cfm?FuseAction=Programs.ViewProgram&Program_ID=10030. The deadline for application is Feb. 1, 2015.

More on the class can be found on the course’s blog at http://sites.psu.edu/China.

Last Updated May 12, 2016