June 22, 2012

By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. -— The Shanghai traffic seemed insane, said Andy Hritz, Class of '14. Cars made left turns in front of oncoming trucks. Bikes wove among lanes in the vast and crowded city. And buses went across the double line to pass slower vehicles. Yet somehow, it all worked.

"In the U.S., when you do something against traffic laws, you'll probably have an accident. In China, the drivers are more forgiving. They compensate for the crowding. It's a different way of approaching things," said Hritz.

The chemical engineer was part of a Bucknell group of 21 students and three faculty members touring China for the annual three-week study abroad course for engineering majors, Engineering in a Global and Societal Context.

Hritz's realization — that unspoken rules governed a seemingly chaotic system — was exactly the kind of experience Keith Buffinton, dean of engineering and course co-instructor, was hoping for.

"For this course, we always choose a destination where students can understand how things like customs, political constraints, policies and engineering affect each other," said Buffinton. "In China, we have the contrast of dynamic change in an ancient land, which became our theme."

The class visited four types of sites: engineering systems such as bridges, computer plants, the Great Wall and Three Gorges Dam; major cultural sites including the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square; businesses including DuPont, GE, HP, AECOM, IBM, Lenovo and Air Products & Chemicals (visits that were arranged with the help of Bucknell alumni); and two universities — Southeast University in Nanjing and the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu.

Every evening, a small group of students made a brief presentation about the historic, social, cultural and engineering aspects of the location they would visit the next day. The next night, the class sat down to discuss what it had seen.

For example, after visiting Three Gorges Dam, the students debated the environmental benefits of hydroelectric energy versus the social and cultural drawbacks of the dam's construction, which displaced more than a million people and flooded forests and archaeological sites.

"The country is expanding quickly and modernizing," said John Puleo '13, a civil engineering major. "There's this tension between expanding and preserving cultural sites."

At the engineering companies, the students met with employees who described the differences between running a business in the U.S. versus China.

"AECOM and HP talked about the fast pace," said Margot Vigeant, associate dean of engineering and course co-instructor. "They said things move about four or five times faster in China. HP took a new building from planning to completion in under a year."

Buffinton said the conversations highlighted the need for engineers to be flexible throughout their career. "The director of human resources at GE talked about how they need to be T-shaped engineers — with technical depth and also breadth," said Buffinton. "It's a concept that's catching on in China."

Co-instructor Xiannong Meng, professor of computer science at Bucknell, connected Bucknell with his undergraduate alma mater, Southeast University. He thought the students in both countries would benefit from getting to know each other.

"They have so much in common because they are all college students, young and energetic and working so hard for their own futures and for the society they'll be living in," said Xiannong. "Yet they are so different because the higher education systems in China and the U.S. are so different."

Masha Zhdanova '13, a chemical engineering major, said the Chinese students wanted to know more about Bucknell's interactive campus life, while the Bucknell students learned that higher education in China revolves around passing a final exam.

Buffinton gave much of the credit for the trip to the president for the Bucknell Alumni Club of China, Brad Feuling '03 and his team. Feuling has been living and working in China for more than five years, and his team has hosted over 300 students and faculty throughout Asia. Feuling connected Bucknell with companies and arranged all of the logistics including meals, lodging and transportation.

"I have a strong interest in opening more doors for students in Asia," said Feuling. "Most engineering students' careers will be influenced by China. Seeing the country firsthand is important, because some of the most impressive engineering projects and innovations are happening in this part of the world."

For Andy Hritz, the trip was a valuable lesson in needing to be flexible and fast. "I came away more open-minded about the way people can approach life in general. In China I saw a whole different way of doing things that I couldn't have anticipated. If I ever go abroad again, I'll be better prepared for that."

Contact: Division of Communications

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