article Fall 2021

Taking Engineering Around the Globe: The Certificate in International Engineering

UW-Madison’s 2015 summer study abroad trip to China

When you think “engineer,” what’s the first thing you think of? Perhaps problem-solver, creative thinker, and decent at math are all things that come to mind. But what about worldly? In an economy that is globalizing rapidly, many would argue that the fourth quality is now just as important as the first three. But how do you get a bunch of 20-something engineering students to think about the world beyond the borders of Engineering Hall? Enter the Certificate in International Engineering.

The Certificate in International Engineering is a 16-credit credential designed to get students to think about the larger world outside of the United States. The requirements include a minimum of six credits devoted to courses with a particular emphasis on the culture, history, geography, society, or institutions of a single country or region of the world. The certificate also requires students to live abroad in this particular region for at least five weeks, either to take university courses or to complete an engineering-related volunteer or work program. While language immersion is not the focus of the program, students can also count certain foreign language courses towards the certificate’s 16-credit minimum.

Amanda Hammatt, Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives within UW-Madison’s International Academic Programs department, is the main advisor for the certificate and has worked with students for over 10 years to help them plan their experiences abroad. “[The certificate] really exposes students to different ways to approach problems, issues, and challenges,” Hammatt says. “It helps them become more aware of some of the cultural differences they might face on an international team, or even a colleague who sits next to them in an office who may be from a different country.”

Hammatt also believes that having a deeper appreciation for cultural differences allows for better problem solving. “Whereas students who haven’t had an international experience and haven’t had additional exposure through these courses might see [cultural differences] as an obstacle… someone who’s had this alternate experience may view that differently,” Hammatt says.

Dante Fratta, an associate professor who teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in geological engineering, recently became the new director of the Certificate in International Engineering. He believes that in a globalized world, having an international mindset is essential. “At the University of Wisconsin, we try to train the leaders, the engineers of tomorrow. So if we are going to do that, we will have to be able to engage in the world, and to be able to understand and be humble about our contributions and learn from the contributions of other countries,” Fratta says.

Studying abroad as an engineer certainly comes with its challenges, and both Hammatt and Fratta acknowledge that the process can seem daunting at first. “A lot of engineering students will come into my office, and they’ll say, first thing: ‘Despite the fact that studying abroad is going to set me back academically, I’ve decided that’s okay, because I really want to have this experience,’” Hammatt recalls. “But often, they are pleasantly surprised when we walk through the equivalencies and they realize that they can take engineering courses abroad and fulfill requirements, and they learn that they actually aren’t likely to get behind.”

“But to be able to do that, you have to plan ahead,” Fratta adds, whose biggest piece of advice for students is that they contact an advisor as soon as they figure out that they would like to go abroad. “I would recommend that if you’re a freshman and you’re thinking about it, start making plans in your freshman year.”

Planning ahead isn’t the only challenge that students have had to face in recent years. Just a few months into 2020, study abroad programs around the world began summoning back their students following a global surge in COVID-19 cases. UW-Madison fully cancelled all its spring and summer study abroad programs by early March.

“As you’d recognize, this has been very disruptive for everybody,” Fratta says, recalling the duration of the pandemic. “I’m sure that your professors have been flexible in your classes; we have also had to become flexible with the certificate. Trying to maintain the spirit but being understanding of the constraints that we have been under the last eighteen months.” Some of that flexibility has included allowing the option for students to enroll in virtual study abroad programs they can participate in from their own homes. It has also included greater flexibility around where students choose to focus their studies.

“For the certificate, we’ve implemented some exceptions during this time … for example, [students] can declare Europe as their focus for the certificate, but then they might do a virtual program that’s focused on Japan,” Hammatt says. “That’s typically not allowed, but we were willing to do that to get through this challenging time.”

Despite these challenges, both Hammatt and Fratta are optimistic about the coming months, as people continue to get vaccinated and booster shots become more widely available to the public. “[Study abroad programs] are slowly reopening to different places in the world. Mainly, right now, it’s Europe, but we hope that as the world starts to control COVID, we’ll be able to open this to other places as well,” Fratta says. “But, while the academic programs are coming back strong, we still recognize that we have challenges.”

Asked if there is anything else he would like students to know about the certificate, Fratta reiterates his earlier advice: “Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead. Amanda is great, and I am willing also to talk with you if you’re interested, so you can be able to think about all the steps you want to take to be able to complete all the requirements within the time of graduation. But again: plan ahead.”

For more information about the Certificate in International Engineering, students can seek out its page on UW-Madison’s virtual guidebook:

Photo provided by Amanda Hammatt

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