International Education: One Man's Perspective on China

John Pfotenhauer -- image credit: COE portraitsAsk John Pfotenhauer why engineers should care about the price of tea in China, and you'll get an earful...and an eyeful. Pfotenhauer, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, led the College of Engineering's first study abroad program to China last summer. In the process, he filled his hard drive with over 1,300 photos and several gigabytes of acoustic Chinese music.

According to the director of the COE's international programs, only 12 percent of UW-Madison engineering students participate in international exchange programs. Pfotenhauer calls this statistic "kind of scary," given the rapid globalization of engineering markets. He's not alone in this assessment. The College of Engineering's 2010 Task Force identified global competition as one of the major forces shaping engineering education today.

Pfotenhauer says he didn't set out to address the challenges posed by globalization. Rather, the summer program grew naturally out of his long-standing relationship with a colleague at Zheijang University. He and Limin Qiu met at a cryogenics conference in 2000. Their friendship matured over the course of the next eight years, as they continued to attend the same conferences and discuss their research interests.

In 2001, one of Qiu's students joined Pfotenhauer's lab to do graduate work. A few years later, Qiu invited Pfotenhauer to visit his lab in southeastern China. The two then began to talk about arranging some sort of student exchange. With the help of Marianne Bird-Bear and Amanda Hammatt from the College of Engineering's International Engineering Studies and Programs Office and Laura Grossenbacher from the Department of Engineering Professional Development (EPD), Pfotenhauer secured a grant from the College of Engineering's 2010 Task force and began planning in earnest. The China program was modeled after a similar successful summer program in Toulouse, France developed by the Department of Engineering Physics.

"I wanted to get our students to do something on an international basis," says Pfotenhauer. "With so many companies involved in the Chinese market, I thought this would be a really great opportunity for the students. The intent was to make them more globally aware, and to make them more marketable for Wisconsin companies once they graduate."

Although the value to the students' careers of the experience abroad remains to be seen, Pfotenhauer calls the summer a tremendous success. Comments from the fifteen students who traveled to China last summer reveal the extent to which the visit shaped their global awareness.

"I lived in China," says Mike Ruskin, currently a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. "For two months, I lived, happily for the most part, in a country whose language I knew nothing of, whose culture was so bizarrely different you just have to laugh about it."

This is just the sort of reaction Pfotenhauer says he had hoped for. Before planning the trip, he knew that many engineering students choose not to study abroad. From discussions with colleagues, he says he had a good idea why. "You get the typical engineer," he says. "He has his program all laid out and he can see where the beginning and the end are. He doesn't want to do anything out of the box that might get him off schedule."

Pfotenhauer coordinated with EPD's Laura Grossenbacher and Tom McGlamery to combat this problem. Grossenbacher and McGlamery accompanied the group to China for the summer and co-taught EPD 397 (Technical Communication) while Pfotenhauer taught ME 361 (Thermodynamics). This allowed the students to stay on schedule by taking two required courses, while at the same time experiencing life in a different country. "We decided that any more courses would have been too much," says Pfotenhauer. "And, by the way, you're in China, so you ought to go look around."

Despite his careful planning, Pfotenhauer says they did have some trouble with recruitment. However, by the time May 28 rolled around, fifteen students had signed up to go. The students lived during June and July in the international dorms on the main campus of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. In that time, they had many opportunities to interact with Chinese students and citizens in both formal and informal settings...as well as time to simply take in the sights.

Between trips to Yellow Mountain, the Great Wall, and a bamboo forest, Pfotenhauer arranged tours of two engineering companies. He says the students were impressed by the caliber of the engineering they saw, as well as the ingenuity of one company's solution to the sweltering Chinese summers: the Huayuan division of the Environment Engineering Co., Ltd. freezes ice during the cooler nights and then cools air by circulating it over the ice during hot days. "One of the girls in the class was very energy conscious," he says. "She became very interested in Huayuan and wanted to know if there was any way she could stay and work there."

Overall, Pfotenhauer says, the students saw that engineers in China deal with the same issues as those in the United States. They fight the same engineering challenges and use the same processes.

The Americans also spent time with the students, post-docs, and faculty in Limin Qiu's research group. Several Chinese students regularly attended Grossenbacher and McGlamery's communication course. The instructors capitalized on this development by having the American students give presentations on various aspects of life in the United States, ranging from sports to politics and education. This resulted in what Pfotenhauer characterizes as a very rich dialogue about the similarities and differences between the two cultures.

Brett Pendleton, a junior in mechanical engineering, noted, "I had it in my mind to come to China, put my finger on the exact culture differences, and report back to my friends at home the major two to three differences. How complex could it be? Today's debate on the Kung Fu Panda helped me realize that I was searching for finite answers when there simply are none to be found."

There was also time for plenty of informal interaction. Near the mid-point of their stay, the Americans joined Qiu's research group for their annual picnic. Qiu taught everyone how to make Chinese dumplings, and the students played Frisbee on the lawn. "The picnic was a tremendous motivator for interaction between the American students and the Chinese students," says Pfotenhauer. "Many friendships developed beginning that day that went through the rest of the summer and are still ongoing."

Although Pfotenhauer does not plan to travel to China again this summer, he says this study abroad trip should be offered for many years to come. "I have a number of colleagues, I think the number is five or six, right now, who want to do this in subsequent years," he says. "The eight-week time commitment is significant. But, I definitely plan to get back into the mix in the future."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) "Engineering the World"

Read more about the importance of including an international component in engineering education. This article appeared in November 2007 in International Educator, a publication of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

2) COE International Engineering division

Information for students hoping to study abroad and faculty who wish to get involved with or organize a study abroad program.

3) COE 2010 Program

John Pfotenhauer received financial support from the COE 2010 Task Force to design this study abroad program.