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
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
- 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
- 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.