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The Languages of Global Engineering: Merging STEM and the Humanities

In October, the Gazelle International team attended the 23rd Annual Colloquium on International Engineering Education (ACIEE), hosted by the University of Rhode Island and sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD. This year’s topic was “Engineering the Future,” highlighting the need for engineering education to adapt, innovate and embrace new opportunities for international collaboration. For many of the conference’s presenters, languages are an important part of that future.

The intersection of engineering and language education was a highlight of the conference for me. Several of the Gazelle International team members come from a background in languages, so these panel topics immediately caught our attention! 

Out of the many great examples, let me share just three of the many compelling reasons I heard for combining language and engineering skills in preparing engineers for the workplace.  

  • Maya Laurinaitis Drake, the International Programs Advisor for Engineering at the University of Virginia, emphasized why engineering students should learn a second language. Their education should prepare them to be more sensitive to speaking English in an international, multilingual setting to assure mutual understanding, to increase their efficiency in product development and technical success in another country, to enhance their ability to quickly learn basic phrases in a foreign country, to open up job opportunities and their own value as an engineer and to cooperate with technical personnel from other cultures. 

  • Lars Erickson from the University of Rhode Island asked: Will engineers interact with people in human resources? Will they discuss user interaction or customer satisfaction with marketing departments? Will they negotiate costs? Will they engage in the hiring process? The answer to all these questions is YES! 

  • Ana Valero Peña and Marc Rathmann from Purdue gave examples of how using real-world examples can motivate students as a teaching strategy. They shared how they prepare students for these professional contexts by incorporating engineering topics into language courses such as French and German. These language-for-special-purposes classes use textbooks along with current articles in newspapers or videos in various media to give students authentic materials with which to interact.  

Being from such a global profession, the presenters at ACIEE argued for the importance of languages along with intercultural competence as a key component of the engineering curriculum. Our team enjoyed discussions with fellow conferees in sessions and at the International Café tables about the potential for virtual exchange and CLICK to provide another approach, based in the curriculum, to enhance language skills, intercultural competence and other essential skills (also known as “soft skills”) such as problem-solving, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking and self-initiative, adaptability and perseverance. 

Sandra McGury’s presentation was especially illuminating. Beyond the direct utility for engineers in the workplace, she focused on the psychological benefits that students gain while learning languages, especially those at technical institutes such as her own Georgia Institute of Technology. A recent study from the American College Health Association demonstrated that even before COVID-19 quarantines hit, 44.5% of students had problems with their academic performance in the Spring of 2020 due to anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties and high stress levels. Teachers can cater to student psychological needs and improve well-being by designing language courses that allow for flexibility among structured choices and create a temporal, local and mental space for learning and being.

Sandra noted that language classes at technical institutes are a special place for students to de-stress. Language classes not only allow but encourage students to try and fail as part of the natural learning process in a way they cannot in their technical courses.

In these types of classroom environment, students can flex their other skills like creativity, perseverance, problem-solving and adaptability.

Virtual exchange modules like CLICK are a great way to create this third learning space, a safe place to experiment, try and fail and be creative. Research shows that virtual exchanges are incredibly helpful for building up communication and other essential skills for workforce preparedness. The desire of these innovative engineering teachers to have well-rounded, prepared, interculturally competent students aligns perfectly with the goals of virtual exchange in the curriculum.

We look forward to future collaborations with these excellent educators!

November 6, 2020

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