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Universities create programs so STEM majors earn 2nd degree in a foreign language

Internationalizing STEM
February 18, 2014

WASHINGTON – The theme of this year’s Association of International Education Administrators conference is “Universalizing Global Learning in the 21st Century Academy,” and a session on Monday focused on broadening, if not universalizing, global learning experiences for students who have historically been underrepresented in study abroad: those in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. 

The barriers to study abroad for these students -- among them strict and demanding sequential course requirements and a lack of time or interest in foreign language study -- are by now legion. However, presenters described two ambitious programs, both modeled on the University of Rhode Island’s longstanding International Engineering program, in which students double-major in a STEM field and a foreign language and spend an entire year abroad. 

The first of these is Northern Arizona University’s Global Science and Engineering Program, which is now in its third year and enrolls about 125 students. As Harvey Charles, the vice provost for international education at Northern Arizona, explained, students in the five-year program earn a B.S. in a STEM discipline -- the most popular majors of students in the program are biology, mechanical engineering, computer science, and environmental science -- as well as  a B.A. in a foreign language (Chinese, French, German, Japanese, or Spanish).

They begin taking courses in both the language and the STEM discipline in their freshman year: a diagram of the program structure is online here. They spend their whole fourth year abroad – for the first semester, they enroll in courses at a partner university, and for the second they do either a paid or unpaid internship in the language of study -- before they return to campus for a fifth and final year. Other components of the program include mandatory meetings with advisors, an optional short-term study tour for sophomores, and cross-cultural training workshops and events with guest speakers. 

"In the end, the program is perceived as demanding but doable if students are willing to work hard," Charles said. "We try hard not to sell it as an elite program because I think that kind of language is a language of exclusion and we want to have as many students participate in the program as possible.” 

In terms of broadening participation, Charles emphasized the need to make the program affordable despite the requirement that students stay on a fifth year. The university already makes a pledge to all undergraduates that they will pay the same tuition rate for four years; for students in the Global Science and Engineering Program, Charles said the pledge covers the fifth year too.

For the year overseas, the university aims to keep the cost down in two ways, by (1) working with overseas universities with which it has bilateral exchanges rather than with study abroad providers (so students pay the same tuition rate as they would if they stayed on campus), and (2) providing students who have unpaid internships with a scholarship equivalent to about half the semester's tuition. (Students who participate in paid internships do not receive this scholarship.)

Eric W. Johnson, the dean of the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University, a Lutheran institution in Indiana, presented on a similar program, the Valparaiso International Engineering Program (VIEP), in which students earn double majors in an engineering field and a foreign language and likewise spend a year abroad. Similar to the Northern Arizona program, they spend the first semester abroad studying at a partner university or at one of Valparaiso’s own international centers, and the following semester and summer participating in an internship.

Valparaiso keeps the cost of the fifth year down by extending university scholarships through the extra year and by making the internship semester virtually tuition-free (Johnson said that students pay just $50 in tuition that semester). “Even though it’s a five-year program they only pay tuition for 4.5 years," he said. Furthermore, because of a specialized endowment, those students who study in Germany get free room and board for the whole year overseas.

“One of our strategic objectives over all for the university is that every student has a cross-cultural experience,” said Johnson, who estimated that the percentage of students in the College of Engineering who have had or will have such an experience -- either through the VIEP program or through short-term or semester-long study abroad -- is currently about 30 percent.

Among the challenges in regards to the VIEP program in particular, Johnson said that students are typically unable to start language study until their second year because of other course requirements: "We have a common first-year experience -- it's a five-to eight-credit course. When we add that course plus physics, calculus and an introductory engineering course -- there's no more time for language. So we have to make sure that we try to get them hooked into the French club or the German club before they decide that they're not interested."

Continuing on the theme of challenges, "We're finding that there's a strong desire to stay with their cohort," Johnson said. "They don't want to stay that fifth year because all their friends are graduating in four years."

"And then of course selling the cost-benefit of the program, we continue to have to do that all the time. And the last is just the academic challenge of doing two programs. You need to have students who are really passionate about the language side as well as the engineering side."

More than 800 people are attending the AIEA conference, which continues through Wednesday.

 

 

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