Internationally connected classes balance engineering, social skills

Gabrielle Barone
March 02, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs’ Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program work to develop their engineering skills and interpersonal skills through classes that focus on interaction with other cultures.

In ELD, courses including the undergraduate course ENGR 422: Leadership of International Virtual Engineering Teams and graduate course ENGR 802: Engineering Across Cultures and Nations, students have the opportunity to work virtually and in-person with students from other countries and cultures.

Dev Modi, a senior majoring in computer science and minoring in engineering leadership development, enrolled in ENGR 422 specifically to improve his cross-cultural skills.

“Cultural awareness gives you an edge in motivating your team and building a good connection with people on your team,” Modi said. “Engineering majors are working on solutions that have at least some international component, so it is really important for engineers to have skills that can help them lead cross-culturally.”

Students enrolled in ENGR 422 have the opportunity to work virtually with students from other countries and then in-person during a visit abroad for the final project. The class focuses on skills relevant to global engineering work.  

“Students are challenged to work virtually throughout the semester on an engineering project. Students learn how difficult it is to motivate, delegate and follow-up with peers who are half a world away with different schedules and cultural norms,” Dena Lang, associate director of engineering leadership research and assistant teaching professor, said. “Many students find it frustrating and rewarding at the same time because they recognize the complexity of working in global engineering teams. They also recognize the importance of understanding cultures to leadership.”

In ENGR 802, students use “Cultures and Organizations,” a book by Geert Hofstede, to develop awareness about cultural differences. The book specifically focuses on cultural differences in business practices.

Students apply concepts they learn from Hofstede by collaborating with students at foreign universities to create projects that focus on engineering-related problems. By taking into account the cultural implications of executing a project across cultures, students develop a better understanding of themselves and others. This enables them to work more effectively on cross-cultural teams.

Lang’s ENGR 802, a required course in the Master of Engineering in Engineering Leadership and Innovation Management program, explores cultural norms and discusses cultural implications for engineering work. This course, developed for both the online ELIM graduate certificate and the residential ELIM program, has students working with partner institutions from Kazakhstan, Belgium and South Africa. 

“This course definitely helped me broaden my mental horizon not just in terms of being an engineer but as a global citizen where a mutual understanding of each other is required,” Prateek Srivastava, a civil engineering graduate student completing the engineering leadership and innovation management graduate minor, said. “I had the chance to be a project lead, which certainly helped me in honing my leadership qualities and to learn how to better manage teams when members have different educational and cultural backgrounds.”

Courses like ENGR 422 and ENGR 802 teach students to expand their horizons and engage with different cultural perspectives in order to gain new interpersonal skills and leadership experience in leading diverse engineering teams. Because of the importance these abilities play in being a successful and competent global engineer, the ELD program diligently works to find quality programs from across the globe to partner with. In the past, students worked with programs in Saudi Arabia, Australia and England to increase their cultural awareness and to better understand the impact culture has on the engineering industry. 

Delaney Padgett, a junior civil engineering student, said ENGR 422 provided her with the opportunity to interact, engage and collaborate with students from two current ELD partners.

Last semester, she and another ELD student worked with students from South Africa’s Belgium Campus and Hungary’s Corvinus University to create a smart farming system that digitizes and tracks the effectiveness of an irrigation system.

“Working with a virtual team during this course has been very rewarding. It has allowed me to work with others and experience a culture that I otherwise never would have had the opportunity to do so,” Padgett said. “This class has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad that I took it.”

Similarly, Zachary Zellhart, a junior majoring in computer engineering, believes the time he spent working with students from around the world was beneficial for building mutual understanding.

“I've been able to learn from them and they've been able to learn some things from me,” he said. “At first I was worried that cultural and time zone differences would present problems. However, once we got into the project those things went by the wayside and everything started running as smooth as any other project that I've worked on.”

Padgett added that building skills outside of engineering can give students a head start when searching for a job.

“Math and science are important aspects of engineering, but communication is just as, if not more, vital than those skills,” she said. “By learning how to lead and to work with those who are different than you, your communication skills will definitely improve.”

Zellhart agreed.

“To be an engineering leader you must understand that not everyone is like you. Learning to recognize, understand and work with others who are different than you is one of the most important skills that you can attain as an engineering leader.”

Patrick Duda, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, found that taking ENGR 422 for his ELD minor gave him a new perspective, as well as additional job skills.

“I think with how globally minded engineering companies are today, it is incredibly important to have experiences like this working in different cultural teams, especially traveling to different countries and experiencing their culture in person,” he said. “There is something these experiences teach you that you just will never be able to reproduce in a classroom.”

Meg Handley, associate director of engineering outreach and assistant teaching professor, accompanied the ENGR 422 class on its trip to South Africa. While abroad, she enjoyed watching the students apply lessons learned in class to improve a banana farm run by local tribes.

“Their energy around solving engineering problems to help farmers operate a huge banana farm was inspiring,” she said.

Handley said students marched through acres of banana trees to locate broken irrigation systems and successfully communicated with non-English speaking native South Africans to understand the banana harvesting process.

“Both their technical and non-technical skills emerged, a testament to the College of Engineering’s efforts to develop world-class engineers and the core aspects of both our undergraduate and graduate Engineering Leadership Development programs. It was great to see both skills in action,” she said.

Interacting with other cultures is a large part of learning to be a leader, according to Handley.

“Recognizing the need to understand others and develop empathy is an important aspect of leadership development. Engineers who learn how to empathize create better design solutions and lead diverse engineering teams more effectively,” she said.

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Last Updated March 15, 2018