Engineering Abroad


 With help from polytechnic peers, a group of Cal Poly students had the opportunity to simulate an international engineering team while establishing memorable bonds during a one-of-a-kind study abroad program in China.

Jianbiao John Pan, an Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering professor and faculty leader, led the group of 15 students on a trip to Hangzhou this summer as part of the Engineering in China program, which is designed specifically for engineering students.

“We have many study abroad programs at Cal Poly, however, there are very few for our engineers,” Pan said. “A majority are for general education, language or related programs. I feel that our engineering students need to be exposed to international culture as well as have an international team experience in a multicultural environment.”

The Engineering in China program included a statistics class, an industrial and manufacturing engineering class that involved manufacturing plant tours, and an individualized project-based engineering class. The learning took place at a local university, Zhejiang University of Technology (ZJUT), which allowed the students to experience the culture of a Chinese college. The classes themselves were not the only immersive aspect of the program — the students also learned Chinese and culture, offered for free by ZJUT, and each Cal Poly student was paired with a ZJUT student in a “buddy” system that formed special bonds.

“They worked together, studied together, and helped each other develop language on both sides,” Pan said. “The buddies really helped our students understand Chinese culture and explore the local areas. This gives our students the chance to deeply understand Chinese culture on an interpersonal level.”

With their buddies, the Cal Poly students were able to simulate a real international engineering team. The opportunity to collaborate with a fellow polytechnic school operating in a completely different society gave the students the chance to understand the logistics of working across continents. One student, Deborah Iwakiri, was able to work on an operations research project for a fitness gym, and another student, Eric Tse, spent his time developing a printed circuit board for an economic gait analysis device.

“We experienced barriers in communication, software and research,” said Iwakiri. “It was hard because both groups were so used to doing things their way and we had to meet in the middle. This was something I had never experienced at Cal Poly, but I know I will experience in future work — especially at large companies with international influence.”

The summer study abroad program is far from all work and no play, however. Shanghai is considered one of the most influential cultural hubs in China, sometimes even referred to as “where the East meets the West,” and the students had the chance to see how it earned that nickname.

Aside from the projects and classes, the students were able to participate in extracurricular excursions to see the local landmarks that define the area, such as the West Lake, one of the most notable lakes in China for its influence on Chinese history. Students experienced the integration of technology in Chinese society, such as the automated subway systems and the high-speed trains, as well as unique architecture like, The Bund. They were also able to visit the Shanghai World Finance Center and a Volvo car manufacturing plant to get a glimpse into the world of corporate China.

“I think all of our students embrace the Chinese culture when they select the program. They love to explore and they want to understand it,” Pan said. “I think they enjoy every aspect of the culture: the food, the language and the society.”

In their free time, the Cal Poly students were also able to experience daily life in China with their buddies.

“In terms of experiencing China, the best things we did were all just going out and exploring the city,” Tse said. “Not just Shenjia, my buddy, but all the buddies in the program took us out to movies, took us to their favorite places to eat and just messed around walking through the city with us.”

While the visits to the local landmarks and experiences in Chinese society are undeniably valuable, Pan believes that there was something even more unforgettable about the Engineering in China program.

“The students from both cultures worked together and developed a friendship during the program. They really got a chance to understand each other’s culture,” Pan said. “At the end of the program, they had a farewell party. They had a great time, and a lot of people struggled with saying goodbye. In the five weeks they spent together, they developed a really strong friendship.”

When Iwakiri reflected on her highlights from the program, she could not help but acknowledge the strong bond she created with her buddy, Zuqiang.

“I realized that I would miss the small mannerisms and norms of our buddies most,” Iwakiri said. “I used to say, ‘Good morning!’ to Zuqiang every day when I got to class, which was a greeting that he had never heard. Once he figured out that it was a normal American greeting, he would say it to me first every morning.  If there’s anything about China that I miss, it’s definitely the opportunity to go abroad and get to meet and learn to love 15 amazing strangers who are definitely the reason the trip was so much fun.”

The Engineering in China program is continuing for the summer of 2019. For more information, visit the Cal Poly International Center site.