Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 1

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
The Civic Work of Diversity
Educating Multicultural Community Builders: Service Learning at California State University Monterey Bay
Education for Democracy: Place Matters
In the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Curricular Transformation
Narrative and Community: Civic Engagement and the Work of Diversity
Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding for Students of Science and Technology
Research Shows Benefits of Linking Diversity and Civic Goals
Diversity and Civic Engagement Outcomes Ranked Among Least Important
Academic Service Learning for Effective Civic Engagement
Faculty Involvement
There Is No Substitute for Experience
Student Experience
The Personal Is Still Political: HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Communicating Common Ground
Resources for Diversity and Civic Engagement
The Civic Engagement Imperative: Student Learning and the Public Good

Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding for Students of Science and Technology

By Richard F. Vaz, associate dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

In Thailand, WPI students work with community partners

In Thailand, WPI students work with
community partners

Relatively few U.S. students of science and technology participate in study abroad, and few of those who do study in developing countries. Yet it is in these countries that the need for appropriate, sustainable solutions to fundamental community problems of public health, infrastructure, and agriculture can help students understand both the potential and limitations of their disciplines. Like other technological universities, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) must seek creative ways to inculcate civic awareness and cross-cultural understanding in its students. WPI’s approach involves a blend of service learning, civic involvement, and study abroad.

WPI’s Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) is intended to help students understand the social and global contexts for their careers as scientists and technologists. This degree requirement presents small, multidisciplinary teams of students with a problem that has both technical and societal components. Such problems challenge students to reflect upon the relationships of science and technology to civic issues and community needs. The IQP learning outcomes include critical and contextual thinking, written and oral communication, integration and synthesis, and cross-cultural competency. Assessment data indicate that these outcomes are best achieved in off-campus settings.

WPI has established a network of “Project Centers” around the globe to which students and faculty travel to address problems of importance for local agencies and community organizations. Over 65 percent of WPI graduates complete at least one nine-credit-hour project off campus, and over 15 percent do so in developing nations such as Costa Rica, Thailand, and Namibia. In Costa Rica, student teams work on problems related to energy, development, and environmental conservation. In Thailand, students may work with farmers to promote sustainable agriculture or with community leaders to design sustainable energy sources for hill tribe villages. In Namibia, project topics include water resource management, wildlife conservation, and aquaculture initiatives.

In order for students to develop appropriate and sustainable solutions from technical, economic, environmental, and cultural standpoints, they must first develop an understanding of the perspectives of the local organizations and communities. Before leaving campus, the students spend up to four months preparing for the project experience, beginning their transition from classroom to applied learning.

For example, the required preparation for students going to Thailand consists of 4.5 credit hours of work with the following elements:

  • Language and culture: Students spend fourteen weeks studying Thai language and culture. The language component focuses specifically on spoken Thai for basic situations the students are likely to encounter in their work. The cultural component focuses on preparing students to interact in effective and culturally appropriate ways with community partners and Thai citizens in the course of their project work. Students also use reflective writing exercises to help them consider how their preferred modes of work and communication might be received in Thailand.
  • Project context: Some projects are located in the slums of Bangkok, others in remote rural villages. Each project team researches the community in which they will be working so that they can understand their project in social, economic, and other local contexts. This typically involves considerable research as well as regular communication with the community partners.
  • Project content: Projects typically require students to acquire background knowledge in both technical and nontechnical areas. The students must set goals and formulate their project through a literature review, with special attention to previous related studies.
  • Methodologies: Most projects draw on methods from the social sciences, such as interviews, focus groups, and both quantitative and qualitative analysis. The students must develop a proposal in which they identify methods likely to be effective for their work.

A team of faculty works together on campus to integrate these elements while setting high expectations for the students. Once in Thailand, the students work full-time for two months with their community partners and faculty advisers. The advisers work with local contacts to provide cultural orientation and guidance, and work closely with the students as they achieve their goals and develop a formal written project report.

WPI students join local partners to develop a sustainable solution to whatever problem has been presented. As a consequence, they see how local culture and community needs impact scientific and technological solutions, while they also develop capacities for working with people very different than themselves in locations far from home. Typically, they learn a great deal about themselves and their own cultural perspectives as well.

In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, science and engineering students must understand the complex relationships between culture, communities, science, and technology if they are to become responsive and wise practitioners. WPI has found that when thoroughly prepared and held to high expectations, students involved in real-world, community-based projects abroad are likely to make these powerful connections.

For more information about WPI’s Global Perspectives Program, visit www.wpi.edu/Academics/Depts/IGSD.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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