Eight UB faculty members traveled to Costa Rica last month as part of the university’s first-ever Study Abroad Incubator, a program for faculty and staff interested in designing and leading new study abroad initiatives.
“We decided to pick a group of applicants who had a strong desire to advance global learning in their respective departments at UB,” says Trevor Poag, director of global learning opportunities in the Office of International Education. “This was a non-traditional workshop with hands-on experience. Our team was able to see Costa Rica firsthand and look at different ways to connect students to all it has to offer in terms of experiential learning opportunities.”
Jim Jensen and John Atkinson represented the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. Other participants were Shamim Islam, clinical assistant professor, Department of Pediatrics; Lisa Vahapoglu, program coordinator, Community of Excellence for Global Health Equity; Dorothy Siaw-Asamoah, clinical assistant professor, Department of Organization and Human Resources, School of Management; Mary Nell Trautner, associate professor and director of graduate studies, Department of Sociology; Sarah Robert, associate professor, Department of Learning and Instruction, Graduate School of Education; and Cynthia Stuhlmiller, professor and director of global nursing initiatives, School of Nursing.
Jensen highlighted his broad perspective when submitting his application to participate in the incubator. “As part of my role in the UB Academies, I encourage a broad range of students to participate in study abroad programs, not just civil and environmental engineering students,” says Jensen, a professor of environmental engineering and academic director of the Sustainability Academy.
His research on water in the developing world also was a key element of his application to the incubator.
Atkinson, an assistant professor of environmental engineering, notes that he and Jensen were unaware the other was going to Costa Rica. His application stressed his research interests, which include air pollution control, environmental and water resources engineering, and more specifically, sustainability.
“Costa Rica is fascinating,” Atkinson says. “They are highly ranked in global sustainability surveys. Almost 98 percent of their electricity is from renewable sources. Over 25 percent of their land is protected forests.”
The UB group, led by Poag, was in Costa Rica June 5-9, visiting different sites around the country. Among them were a government-run health care services center; the Institute for Central American Development Studies; a public school; the Association of Costa Rican Engineers and Architects; coffee, pineapple and banana plantations; the Kekoldi indigenous community; and the Quetzal Education Research Center, as well as hydro and wind energy generation sites.
“Based on my experience living there for a number of years, I was able to select a few key sites to illustrate the topics that were present in the study abroad incubator,” Poag says. “This was a place to sharpen some ideas and spur ideas for new development. The idea now is to try to advance some of the great ideas our team brought to the table.”
Only 80 students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences reported studying abroad when such data was last collected during the fall 2016 semester, a reflection of the overall trend of low participation rates of engineering students in study abroad programs.
“Engineers study abroad at a very low rate compared to other majors,” says Jensen, who also serves as director of undergraduate studies for the environmental engineering program. “Engineering requires cultural sensitivity. It requires you to know about people, and how people from other cultures think. A 21st-century engineer needs to spend time abroad so they can bring a more global perspective into their decision-making.”
Jensen and Atkinson have worked abroad, but neither studied engineering abroad as an undergraduate. They both acknowledge the importance of study abroad programs and their impact on students.
“The cultural experience is very important,” Atkinson says. “The experience of observing how different people do things, of relating to people from other cultures, and of identifying similarities and differences changes the way you think and act. Even if you never step foot abroad again, it will make you a better engineer — a more complete, well-rounded and thoughtful professional.”