A Plan to Send Engineering Students Abroad

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will become one of the few science-centric institutions to expect study-abroad experience from all its students.
April 4, 2008

Study abroad is often viewed as a "liberal arts" program, an opportunity for students to soak in the culture, language and customs of another country and, it's hoped, to add perspective to their own studies when they return. Not too many colleges have sought to challenge that conception, with the highest rates of study-abroad experience -- 40 percent to more than half of the student body -- still seen at liberal arts colleges.

At the other end of the spectrum have usually been science and engineering majors, regardless of the type of institution they attend. Such students might not even consider studying abroad an option, or they might question the value of an expensive stay overseas to the top-quality education they're already receiving on campus. And likely, even if they wanted to, many students studying math or science would have trouble fitting a semester abroad into an already tightly structured curriculum.

Over the next several years, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute wants to change all of that.

A week from today, the Troy, N.Y., institution will announce Rensselaer Engineering Education Across Cultural Horizons (REACH), an initial collaboration with the Technical University of Denmark and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Officials expect the program to expand to an array of institutions in Asia, Europe, South America and eventually Australia and Africa. For most students studying engineering at RPI, going abroad will become an integral part of the undergraduate experience.

At the same time, the program will be reciprocal, with 500 to 600 foreign students arriving at RPI for a semester to replace the ones abroad.

"We’re going to grow this program slowly,” said Alan W. Cramb, dean of RPI's School of Engineering, who estimated that over each of the next six to eight years, 100 additional students would go abroad, starting next year. “It is an expectation that all students will do this, but one has to be realistic," especially for students with health issues and other potential exceptions, he added. But, for all intents and purposes, going abroad in some form or another will be a requirement -- an opt out, not an opt in.

That could mean a semester abroad (likely the spring semester of junior year), a summer doing research abroad, an internship in another country or any number of other tailored possibilities, from a semester at sea to assisting a professor on a project overseas. The idea is for the initiative to be flexible for students who want it, but to also offer a set of ready-built options.

Most of the engineering students “will want the entire process to be automated for them,” Cramb predicted, adding that he'd be lucky if 100 students decided they wanted to customize their own study-abroad programs. The rest, he figures, will be more passive: “OK we’d like to do it, now where can we go?”

Either way, the university is working to make sure the new study-abroad component isn't disruptive to students' schedules. Departments in the engineering school are working to make the spring semester "as open as possible," Cramb explained, and they are also working with partner institutions abroad to ensure that courses students take will be transferable. Another option, he said, is also for students to pile up general requirements for the semester they go abroad.

In 2006, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began discussions about promoting study abroad for its undergraduates, raising issues -- like schedule flexibility -- that RPI has said it will tackle in the coming years. Like MIT, RPI is looking to an existing collaboration with a number of other institutions as a model for a larger-scale program.

"I don’t think we’re the first" engineering school to start a major study-abroad program, Cramb said, but "[w]e may be one of the ones [going into it] more deeply than others."


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