Course gives students a better understanding of global issues through international travel.

By Brian Hudgins • Photo by Luiz Felipe Perrone

Ten years ago, engineering professors Jeffrey Evans and the late Richard McGinnis '68 discussed potential international study options for Bucknell's engineering students. They developed a course with one simple mission: Make sure graduates become problem solvers anywhere from Lewisburg to London. In 2004, Engineering 290: Engineering in a Global/Societal Context was born. Evans, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and McGinnis co-taught the course through its infancy.

"Engineers around the world all study the same math and physics and read the same literature," Evans says. "You find different solutions to the same problem. There are different social and historical contexts that drive engineering decisions."

Since the course debuted, teachers and students have examined engineering issues in locations such as Brazil, China and the United Kingdom. "Part of the joy of teaching this class is you learn a lot yourself," says Associate Dean of Engineering Margot Vigeant, who has twice been a faculty leader. A trip to Shanghai opened her eyes to the sheer size of that city. "There are enormously huge apartment buildings," she says. "It is a faster pace [than the U.S.]. China's development is not over generations or lifetimes of many people. It is over the lifetimes of our students."

Danielle Renzi '10 is a water and sanitation engineer for the Peace Corps in rural Panama. The 2008 ENGR 290 course that included a trip to Germany, Switzerland and France showed her problem-solving skills and the role of cultural factors within city plans and designs. In a few weeks, Renzi and her classmates toured more than 10 cities.

That broad knowledge has helped Renzi in her career. "Designing water and sanitation systems to be culturally appropriate is a huge issue in development work," Renzi says. "In Panama, Peace Corps volunteers have developed a bidet in compost latrines for those communities that are traditionally accustomed to anal cleansing in a river or stream. These types of considerations can transform communities and effect drastic drops in rates of diarrheal disease."

The class is technically a summer course — but is set up to give students flexibility during the summer to pursue work opportunities. ENGR 290 is scheduled to begin just after final exams, running from May to June in a three-week period, allowing students to return to the U.S. in time to do a summer internship. Students keep a journal and are also evaluated through a term paper which serves as the final exam. Students used to keep journals by using pen and paper, but the introduction of iPads to the class in China last year has made the process more efficient. "Students could include photos or even a movie in a journal," Vigeant says. "I could see it and grade it without them having to give up the journal. Before, with pen and paper, you had to hurry up and give the journal back to students, so they could write about the next day."

The next journeys for the ENGR 290 crews will be to Argentina and Costa Rica later this year. It is the first time the course will be offered twice in the same year. "The Argentina curriculum is based on studying engineering for developing countries, which is something I have always been passionate about," says Alyssa Rollando '14. "So, seeing how to transfer first-world design to the cost efficiency and availability of resources in the third world is really exciting."

After a tram ride over the historic Arcos da Lapa in Rio de Janeiro in May 2010, the ENGR 290 team dined at Restaurante Sobrenatural in the Santa Tereza neighborhood.