Not so long ago, Joe Tort recalls taking regular calls from distraught students who were struggling to adapt to the cultural differences they experienced while studying or working abroad.

The director of Purdue’s Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education (GEARE) program, Tort hardly ever takes those calls anymore – a change he attributes to language and cultural training that better prepares his engineering students for the situations they might encounter in other countries.

“They’re better able to solve those problems on their own,” Tort said.

A new collaboration between Purdue engineering and the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) aims to expand this training even further, integrating additional humanities learning into global engineering students’ coursework. The collaborators’ successful grant proposal aims to design a plan to help these students make the most of their opportunities studying and interning abroad.

“Something we discussed in our project meetings was: Why are cultural perspective-taking, languages, and intercultural communication important skills for the current century?” said project director Lori Czerwionka, an associate professor of Spanish and linguistics. “In the last few decades, the humanities have undergone a lot of criticism. People asked, ‘Why should we study these topics?’ with the thinking that they are not oriented to the business world. And then in the last 10 years or so, we’re seeing this swing back where employers are saying, ‘We need people with skills who can connect with diverse people and understand the complex world around them.’”

As Tort explained, those invaluable connections can be difficult to establish when the involved parties don’t speak the same language or when they lack basic knowledge about the differing cultural expectations that govern their interactions. Those prepared to clear these cultural hurdles gain a tremendous advantage in the competitive global marketplace.

“What seems to happen is when they come in knowing the language, or at least being proficient enough that they can interact, it breaks down so many barriers,” said grant project co-director Eric Nauman, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Office of Professional Practice. “All of a sudden, everybody’s giving each other the benefit of the doubt. So even if it wasn’t essential in some places, it is an enormous asset. It seems like people are realizing this is actually a really big deal. Luckily we’re kind of on the front of the curve.”

NEH supports grant project

Thanks to a $35,000 Humanities Connections planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Purdue’s global engineers could soon gain an even bigger advantage.

Over the next year, Czerwionka and Nauman are teaming with Tort, School of Languages and Cultures head Jen William, and GEARE associate director of global projects Francisco Montalvo to develop their “Integrating the Humanities and Global Engineering” project. They plan to create pre- and post-trip language and intercultural training for GEARE students and individualized experiential learning projects for the students to complete during their experiences abroad. In addition, they plan to launch the “Engineering through a Humanistic Lens” speaker series in which GEARE and SLC students will hear about the importance of humanities knowledge from experts in research and industry.

“Most of Purdue’s students are not only talented in STEM fields, but they have excelled in their humanities courses in high school and college, as well,” William said. “In the School of Languages and Cultures, we often hear engineering students say they wish their schedule allowed them to take more classes with us, and the curricular changes enabled by this NEH grant should help them do that.”

The centerpiece of the project is a new course, Global Engineering: Humanities-Informed Projects, in which engineering students will be asked to examine real-world problems through technical, cultural, and historical lenses.

For example, Czerwionka cited factors the Peruvian government considered when deciding whether to limit tourist access to Machu Picchu in an effort to preserve the 15th-century Incan ruins. Students in the class might assess the situation from an engineer’s perspective, determining the conditions and foot traffic that might cause the ruins to further deteriorate, while also weighing the site’s cultural value.

“It requires that they learn about cultural heritage sites and consider their value for humanity now,” Czerwionka said. “We ask them to look at the society of the time and the structures that were built. What can we learn about collaboration in society at that time considering the engineering tasks accomplished? Related to current social issues, can students quantify the estimated deterioration of the ruins given the popularity of the tourist site in order to evaluate the government’s decision? That’s something that we’ll be working on, especially with Joe and Francisco, on designing these case studies so that they meet engineering and humanities learning goals.”

Studying such real-world situations can be useful across engineering disciplines, Nauman noted.

“It turns out that if you’re a civil engineer and you look at how infrastructure gets built in different countries, you start to realize all of the geographic constraints, the historical constraints, all of the fundamentals that go into this stuff that are absolutely crucial to how you ultimately solve the problem,” he said. “And we then started seeing it in biomedical and mechanical and all these different domains, and you start to realize not just the language, culture, history, but even the patent laws in different countries start to affect how you approach the problems. And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So, the more students we send abroad, the more of these kind of cases we see, and it turns out that it’s absolutely crucial for those students.”

Mutual benefits

Like the similar collaboration that recently introduced Korean as Purdue’s 15th language offering, this grant project should benefit both the engineering program and SLC.

Engineering students who wish to gain language and cultural training expand SLC’s student base and support the department’s wide array of academic programming. Meanwhile, the students gain valuable skills that will help them work internationally.

Whether they travel to Germany, France, Spain, China, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, or Brazil, the GEARE students who receive this pre-trip preparation are better equipped to enjoy a successful experience abroad.

“What we are hoping to build is basically a super student,” Tort said. “A student who is really talented with the technical skills, but a student who is also really talented with their intercultural ability – somebody who’s going to be able to work anywhere in the world and lead people of all sorts of different backgrounds.”

During this planning year, the collaborators plan to seek implementation grant funding that can support hiring instructors and adding courses. Their goal is to launch the full-fledged program in fall 2021, and their efforts have attracted attention from outside entities intrigued by their interdisciplinary cooperation.

“The great thing is that between us and the School of Languages and Cultures, there’s people that actually want to study what’s going on here,” Nauman said. “That will help us over the next 10 years in terms of making these programs better. This first grant is a great jumping-off point, and we’re hoping that it leads to 10 more.”

Initially, Tort expects 50-100 GEARE students to take part in the new humanities-engineering collaboration, with the potential to add more as the program grows. Student interest drives these programming opportunities, so as long as expansive language and intercultural training results in positive experiences for GEARE students, this partnership will continue to hold considerable potential.

“For us, this grant means that our efforts are recognized as something that makes sense,” Czerwionka said. “All four reviewers on the grant gave us the highest rankings, and most of them commented on the fact that Purdue is an ideal place for this. We have 9,000 undergraduate engineers. We have strengths in languages and cultures. We have strengths in the humanities building across disciplines – with Cornerstone, with medical humanities. We have the CILMAR Institute, which supports intercultural competence development and research.

“Between GEARE and the School of Languages and Cultures, and CILMAR, we have various projects that have been in development. So, this grant just says it’s recognized as something that’s valuable. It’s valuable to students, it’s valuable to granting agencies that care about university education and preparation of students. And so, it’s really exciting.”

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