International Education and Holistic Thinking for Engineers

President Berkey's chapter in Holistic Engineering Education: Beyond Technology discusses WPI's non-traditional approach to international education and how it relates to holistic engineering education in the global innovation economy.

Invited chapter in forthcoming book, Holistic Engineering Education: Beyond Technology

International Education and Holistic Thinking for Engineers
Dennis D. Berkey
President and CEO
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The dramatic rise in popularity of study abroad programs in the past 30 years has not seen participation by students majoring in engineering and science in U.S. colleges and universities at rates anywhere near the national averages. Despite the increasing awareness of the importance of a global perspective in the increasingly interconnected, flat, hot, and crowded world (Friedman, [1], [2]), these students have been constrained from participation by the academic requirements of their majors and the demands of their laboratories.

Yet the concern for holistic education for engineering and science students implies, due to the interconnectedness of today's world and the important roles played by engineering and science in international commerce, that engineering students really must have a sensibility about the world beyond their campuses and their nation for them to realize the full potential of their abilities, both in their careers and in their personal lives.

Numerous studies have documented the rise of engineering education around the world, especially in India and China, and the degree to which the Unites States has fallen dramatically behind other nations in the production of engineering graduates. It remains to be seen what impact this disparity will have on American economic competitiveness, but it is clear that the better informed our engineering and science graduates are about best practices around the world and the ways of transnational collaboration, the better positioned they will be to make full use of the opportunities abundantly available in a global innovation economy. Innovation remains the most hopeful route to economic prosperity and world stability (Carlson, [3]), a message that is increasingly understood around the world.

Some Important Models

The early forms of study abroad grew out of relationships between particular institutions, where "exchange students" had experiences limited primarily to those of students at the institutions they were visiting. Often these grew into "direct enrollment" programs, where the focus was less on a balanced exchange of students between institutions and cultures than on the opportunity for U.S. colleges and universities to place students at institutions abroad.

Limited though these experiences were, they were important in providing the opportunity for exchange students to experience a different place and point of view in the world, including the views of their homelands as expressed primarily by students and faculty at the host institutions and in the local media. It is not surprising that the most popular programs for U.S. students arose in the English-speaking world, especially in Britain, with Australia gaining in popularity in more recent years.

Large numbers of American engineering students have not participated in study abroad programs: participation comprises less than 3 percent of all U.S. study abroad students. [4] The major obstacle to greater participation has been the demanding, complex nature of engineering curricula, in which absence from the campus or enrollment in courses not well aligned with the home institution's curriculum can impede progress toward the degree. Some institutions have addressed this problem by identifying courses at host institutions abroad that constitute suitable equivalents to courses that students might have otherwise taken at their home institution. One example is Boston University, which has arranged for direct enrollment in technical and engineering courses at the University of Sydney, Dublin City University, Tel Aviv University, and the Technische Universitat Dresden, among others. Engineering students typically attend these programs in their sophomore or junior years, taking three engineering/science courses and one elective course. Academic experiences are typically complemented by field trips to research institutions, corporations, and technical museums. On successful completion of the semester abroad, students receive full credit toward their degrees [5].

A different type of experience is offered by Tufts University, where engineering and science students may enroll for an entire academic year at University College London. This program provides a relatively authentic experience of enrollment "in college" at a British institution, including the challenge of year-end examinations covering the entire corpus of work.

Study abroad programs have evolved into many different variations. In [6], Vaz notes an extensive study by Alan Parkinson [7] providing a taxonomy of engineering study abroad programs, and comments extensively on the scalability of various models. Of particular interest in that discussion, as it is here, are the less traditional, project-based programs which provide a different approach to holistic education for engineering students.

The WPI Model

My own institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), takes a highly non-traditional approach to international education. It is, however, an approach that is very well aligned with the goals of holistic engineering education as articulated by Grasso and Martinelli [8]. This program, called the Global Perspective Program, is offered in the context of the WPI Plan, the basic elements of which need to be understood before considering the nature and benefits of this program.

Nearly 40 years ago the WPI faculty designed and implemented a radical transformation of engineering education that focused on outputs (competencies) rather than inputs (courses). Emphasis was shifted from passing courses via success on conventional measurements to competencies as demonstrated in the successful completion of three major "qualifying projects" and a final, oral "competency exam." This high-stakes examination required students to demonstrate both mastery of the core disciplines and an ability to think creatively across them.  For the qualifying projects, students were encouraged to collaborate in project teams and to develop good communication skills by which the results of the project efforts were conveyed both orally and in writing. Lectures and tutorials took the form of resources in the learning process rather than courses to be passed.

The three major qualifying projects best reflected the new educational philosophy. The "sufficiency project" demonstrated a student's familiarity with several related areas within the arts and humanities and the successful development of an integrating theme as expressed in a major paper, performance, or creative output. This early appreciation for the importance of "right brain" development in the education of engineers and scientists reflected the notion of the "technological humanist," and resulted in a rich production of remarkably creative works.

The second project, called the "interactive qualifying project" (IQP), involved teams of 3-4 students applying technology to an interdisciplinary problem in society, usually addressing a significant human need. This project best reflected the Institute's motto, Lehr und Kunst (theory and practice).

The final project, typically completed in the senior year, was the "major qualifying project" (MQP). As the name suggested, this project was a significant research or design project in the major field of study, and was often undertaken in the facilities of an industrial sponsor.

Along with radically restructuring the curriculum, the faculty eliminated failing grades, awarding each project either an acceptance or an invitation to try again. Finally, the academic calendar was reorganized to provide four "terms" of seven weeks each, so that students could focus more intensely on fewer objectives in any single term and, in particular, so that they could devote fulltime effort to one of the major projects during each of several terms.

The result of all of these changes was a learning environment that emphasized cooperation among students rather than competition; their ability to work collaboratively in teams, to deal with ambiguity, and to integrate knowledge across disciplines; and the application of knowledge to productive ends. Of necessity, this environment required a more active approach to mastering the "core knowledge" needed in the analysis and solution of problems, as well the development of strong interpersonal, writing, and presentation skills to facilitate good collaboration, and the effective communication of what had been learned and accomplished in the projects.

During the nearly four decades that have elapsed since the WPI Plan was created it has, not surprisingly, been modified and improved in light of the experience with it. Formal coursework has returned closer to center stage, especially in the first year; the grading system has been expanded to comprise A, B, and C grades, and the NR (no record); and the "sufficiency projects," originally individual efforts requiring one-on-one advising by faculty, have morphed into "inquiry seminars and practica." Nonetheless, the fundamental philosophy of the WPI Plan has remained firmly intact: students are given great latitude and responsibility for shaping their programs; cooperation prevails over competition; and the projects, the IQP and MQP, remain the focal points of the upper class experience.

It is remarkable how well aligned the 1970 conception of the WPI Plan anticipated the vision embodied in ABET's Curriculum 2000 and, more recently, the NAE's vision for the engineer of 2020 [9], placing "people skills" on par with technical skills and core scientific knowledge. This common vision is articulated explicitly in WPI's current educational philosophy:

"The goals of the undergraduate program are to lead students to develop an excellent grasp of fundamental concepts in their principal areas of study; to lay a foundation for lifelong renewal of knowledge; to gain a mature understanding of themselves; and, most importantly, to form a deep appreciation of the interrelationships among basic knowledge, technological advance, and human need." [10]

The Global Perspective Program

The structure and philosophy of the WPI Plan and the WPI faculty's strong commitment to such enlightened and broad learning goals provided an ideal setting for the development of a highly innovative and powerful type of international experience.  Developed and expanded during the past twenty years, this popular and important component of the undergraduate program is referred to as the Global Perspective Program. It is particularly relevant to the notion of holistic engineering education as a kind of purposeful learning experience that involves virtually all of what are now being called 21st century skills, from global and intercultural awareness, to interdisciplinary and collaborative learning, to teaming and innovating, to communicating by a variety of means, and to making the world a better place for humankind.

The simplest description of the Global Perspective Program is that it enables students to complete one or more of their required projects (most often the IQP, due to its social nature) at one or more of WPI's several dozen project centers spread literally around the world.  It consists of on-location project work, typically involving a high degree of interaction with the local people and culture, aimed at accomplishing something of value for the sponsoring agency and/or host community.

The goals of the Global Perspective Program are strongly aligned with the goals of the undergraduate program:

"The Global Perspective Program aims to instill in WPI students and faculty an appreciation of difference and an ability to interact effectively with other peoples and cultures; the ability to apply their skills and knowledge across disciplinary, geographic, and political boundaries; and an understanding of themselves and what roles they might play, professionally and personally, in an increasingly interconnected world." [6]

The Global Perspective Program operates project centers in a wide variety of locations: Bangkok, Budapest, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Ifrane (Morocco), Kyoto, Limerick, London, Melbourne, Nancy (France), San Jose (Costa Rica), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Venice, Windhoek (Namibia), and Wuhan (China), as well as at several locations in the United States (Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Nantucket, Worcester). Project centers are essentially virtual, operating for one or two terms during the academic year and occasionally for a summer term. Each project center has a faculty director, who, with the Program's Dean, shares the responsibility to recruit faculty advisors, select students, arrange projects, and ensure the necessary logistics (housing, food, transportation, etc.). Many of the project centers have developed out of existing relationships of faculty directors, although the Dean and the staff of the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division (the administrative division that oversees the Global Perspective Program) are constantly looking for new project center sites and themes.

Some students complete their humanities and arts requirement at a project center, most frequently in the sophomore year and often in London in association with its Dickens Museum. The majority of participants, however, are completing their Interactive Qualifying Project, or IQP, in their junior year, while a smaller number (including some who have already been to project centers completing their earlier projects) complete their Major Qualifying Project (MQP) at a project center as seniors. All told, about half of all WPI undergraduates complete one or more of their required projects at the international project centers.

As you will see from the examples discussed in what follows, participation in the Global Perspective Program, especially when pursuing an IQP, is an ideal form of holistic education, both for engineering students and for those from other majors (mostly science, mathematics, computer science, and management). Students collaborate in small teams (2-4 students) to attack difficult but important problems. The work often requires problem clarification at the outset, and is frequently fraught with unscripted challenges. Students must understand and appreciate the problem's cultural context and social dynamics. Resources are often scarce, timelines are necessarily short and rigid, and significant parts of the knowledge required to solve the problem must be gained in the field or in the brief period of preparation prior to departure. In short, these are intense experiences in the purposeful application of students' abilities and knowledge in highly interdisciplinary, intercultural, and demanding situations with important goals.

For the IQPs done abroad, faculty project center directors work with local associates and sponsoring organizations (usually governmental or non-governmental agencies) to develop prospective projects, often comprising parts of larger, ongoing initiatives at the project site. Faculty advisors, usually working in pairs, typically support approximately six project teams of four students each. Before departing for the seven-week term abroad, project teams work with faculty advisors throughout the preceding term on project formulation, relevant research, implementation strategies, language and cultural concerns, and overall expectations. Students begin developing the scope and outline of their project report before departure, keep extensive logs of their experiences while abroad, and submit comprehensive written reports on their work once back on campus. An annual competition, for the President's IQP Awards, features selection of finalists based on faculty review of written project reports, and oral presentations by the project teams before a panel of distinguished judges. Student pride in the quality of these projects is comparable to that of championship athletes or award winning artists or musicians.

Some Model Global Projects

Several particular projects are discussed below to give a fuller appreciation for the nature of these activities.

(The e-nose)  Three WPI undergraduates spent 10 weeks in Ireland completing their MQP working on a gaseous molecule detector, which they called the e-nose.  Uses for this technology range from verifying the condition of fresh foods and flowers to sensing gas leaks to detecting explosives. The students' contribution was to design functional prototype circuitry for use at the interfaces of gas particle sensors with small computers. This project was sponsored by the University of Limerick and a private company. While in Limerick the students were hosted in a "home stay" and found time to explore much of the countryside as well as the city.

(Water for Palm Trees)  A team of four WPI undergraduates undertook an IQP for the New Life for Abused Children Project in Thailand, a non-profit organization that helps abused and homeless children by caring for them generally and teaching them employable skills. This project supported New Life's goal of teaching the children trades based on palm tree oil, from which they could make soaps, lamp oil, and other useful commodities. The particular problem for this team was to determine how a dry field, potentially the site of an orchard, could be made fertile by irrigation from a nearby water reservoir.

The project team surveyed the site, including measuring the depth of the reservoir and respective elevations; researched available technologies and design alternatives; analyzed water samples; and decided upon a potential design for a drip irrigation system for the prospective orchard. Once their design was completed they built a prototype to test its performance, and with verification in hand, wrote a detailed recommendation for how the system could be implemented together with its estimated cost. They then went the extra mile, out of a concern to maximize the possibility of a successful implementation, by also producing a system maintenance manual and promotional materials for the fundraising that would be necessary to pay for the system's installation and operation.

Living quarters at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University provided an excellent environment for research and (limited) leisure, as well as the opportunity to interact with local students and faculty. Most rewarding, though, was the team's ability to accomplish something of great value in the effort to enable disadvantaged children to have hope for their future.

(Better shelters in Namibia)  Namibia, Africa, contains some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world as well as dramatic human poverty. WPI's project center, based at the Polytechnic Institute of Namibia, provides eye-opening, life-changing experiences for students wanting to make a difference in the world. One team, with sponsorship from the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Bureau of Namibia, undertook what sounded like a fairly simple project: to design low-cost, energy-efficient improvements to the housing structures of shack dwellers in Goreangab, Namibia. The improvements were to be made from locally available materials with the goal of making the existing structures cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

On their arrival, students were astounded by the extreme poverty of the village: there was no running water, electricity, or means of transportation. Yet the people of the village had an indefatigable desire to survive and to better themselves, which was a powerful source of inspiration to the students. They quickly realized the need to establish trusting relationships with the shack dwellers, and to respect their humble quarters as sources of pride for the occupants. Time spent listening to the villagers and researching the available natural resources led to an innovative use of local plant material to insulate the shacks and make considerable improvements in the thermal performance of these shelters.

(Washing stations in Cape Town) One of the most recently developed project centers is in Cape Town, South Africa. The project that won the 2009 President's IQP Award took place in Khayelitsha, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, where the Shaster Foundation, the project's sponsor, had already constructed a set of community buildings to provide basic shelter, medical resources, and a community center.

The problem chosen by the WPI project team, after extensive correspondence with the Shaster Foundation regarding the needs of the people in the settlement, concerned the washing of clothes. The nearest source of water for the villagers was a stand pipe located a considerable distance from the village. To do their washing, the women first had to carry jugs full of water back to the village from the stand pipe. In addition to the extreme labor required, this practice resulted in waste wash water being poured onto the village grounds. The team's goal was to design a sustainable, sanitary, and environmentally sound solution to this "laundry problem."

After developing relationships with the villagers and exploring needs and options, the team decided upon the approach of collecting rainwater runoff from the roof of the community center building, storing it in tanks until needed for washing, and then directing it into washing tubs to be located adjacent to the community building. Going a step further, they imagined also that the wastewater from the washing activity could be used to supply an irrigation system to support a garden near the washing station. The students wanted the solution to be reliable and sustainable, so they restricted the design to simple  mechanical and plumbing parts, which they determined to be available in Cape Town, without relying on either electrical pumps or a piped-in water supply.

The design called for the pitch of the existing gutters on the building to be reversed in order to bring the rainwater to the location of two large holding tanks, which were mounted on elevated platforms, one above the other. These tanks would provide both a gravity feed to the washing station below and storage capacity for excess rainwater. Village women were consulted in the design of the washing station to ensure that the washing tubs would be at a comfortable height and fully functional. An irrigation scheme was designed so that wastewater could be moved through inexpensive piping to the intended garden and appropriately dispersed. Materials were specified, along with availability and cost. Finally, the team specified, and educated in the villagers on the use of, biodegradable laundry detergents to ensure the effectiveness of the irrigation and teach the concept of sustainability and environmental protection.

Although the project team's original goal was only to produce a design for the washing system, the students became so committed to the success of the concept and to the villagers themselves that they decided that they would attempt to construct the complete washing and irrigation systems before their brief, seven-week stay ended. That is just what they did, working nearly around the clock to construct the supporting structure for the holding tanks, the washing stations, and the irrigation system—including the trenching —and assembling all of the piping, plumbing, and mechanical controls. Along the way they became passionately committed to the villagers and to themselves as a team. In retrospect, one student wrote,

"Although I've had internships and completed various projects on campus, none of those experiences can compete with what I learned during my experience abroad. Not only did I learn about a different culture, I saw the true intersection of technology and society and realized the professional opportunities and social responsibilities that exist for engineers."

As well as any, this project captures the holistic nature of WPI's Global Perspective Program.  On the one hand the students had an intense experience with the synthesis of both learning and applying their knowledge. The written and oral reports from this project team made clear the prominent role of engineering design in their collaborations, from the avoidance of electrical power in the gravity-feed design of the rainwater collection, storage, and distribution system to the types of materials both available and sufficient for the necessary functionality and endurance. The theme of sustainability governed all aspects of the design and implementation. And the understanding of the relevant social and cultural factors, gained through many conversations with the shack dwellers and the trust established in their relationship with them, ensured the acceptance, use, and "ownership" of the washing station by the women of the village.

In a more macro sense this project fits into a broader notion of holistic education (and not just engineering education, as project teams typically comprise students from both engineering and non-engineering majors). The team prepared for the term abroad through extensive research on South Africa, local conditions, and particular needs of the villagers as conveyed by the sponsoring agency. The themes of social responsibility, service to mankind, applications of engineering design principles, and sustainability ran prominently throughout their preparations, as did an intense interest in learning as much as they could about the African continent and South Africa in particular. The higher order skills of written and oral communication, effective collaboration, problem definition and clarification, and critical thinking were in constant use.

In the end, the Shaster Foundation commended the project team not only for the excellence of the design and construction of the laundry and irrigation system, but also for the wonderful way the students had served as ambassadors for their institution and for their country. The Foundation assured the students that their work would serve as a model for other washing stations and similar improvements in other settlements in the region, thus noting an added dimension of the project's sustainability—its extension by example to others to come.

In addition to the projects described above, other recent WPI student projects have included:

  • Work with the Catchment, Stormwater, and River Management Branch of the City of Cape Town to help mitigate flood risk in the informal settlements;
  • Work in Windhoek, Namibia to develop innovative, sustainable HIV/AIDS prevention strategies;
  • Work in Costa Rica with trout farmers and the national aquaculture association to improve the efficiency and yield of trout farming;
  • Work in Copenhagen to analyze and recommend actions concerning the carbon footprint associated with food consumption;
  • Work in Hong Kong to recommend certain improvements in the Victoria Harbour waterfront; and
  • Work in Venice, extending a 20-year engagement centered on the canals system with respect to historic preservation, efficiency of operation, economic and cultural factors, and its support of commerce and tourism.

It would have been difficult to describe the above projects without using the term "work," for that is what is involved in each of these international projects. Students learn about the region they visit, and its people, by directly confronting a need, problem, or opportunity, and working with available resources and within the local constraints to, as they put it, "get the job done." It is difficult to imagine, I believe, a higher form of global "community service," or a more intense experience in collaborative applications of core knowledge across disciplines within a learning context of another culture and unfamiliar social conditions.

Requirements and Challenges for this Type of International Program

Like most institutions with extensive international program components, WPI maintains a separate division, called the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division (IGSD) which has administrative responsibility for the Global Perspective Program. This includes the recruitment of center directors, faculty advisors to accompany and supervise project teams, facilitators at the project sites to assist with housing and other logistics, and project sponsors. The IGSD is headed by a dean, with the assistance of an associate dean and a professional staff. Risk management is a particularly important responsibility of the IGSD administrative team.

Other than the leadership of the IGSD, the most important requirement for the success of this program is a willing and supportive faculty. Serving as a co-advisor for a project site requires fulltime attendance at the site for the entire seven-week term, sharing supervisory and instructional responsibility with one other colleague typically for six teams of four students each. Not only does this require familiarity with six projects and almost constant interactions with the students, both individually and in groups, but the co-advisors must also handle all of the administrative issues for the group, including counseling, health, safety and other concerns. Faculty who serve as center directors (as opposed to project co-advisors) do not have responsibility for particular project teams, nor are they required to be on site while project teams are active, but they bear the important responsibility of ensuring continuing good relations at the site and a steady flow of potential projects.

WPI is fortunate that approximately 20 percent of its fulltime faculty from across the Institute, in addition to several faculty members appointed directly in the IGSD, participate regularly in project center advising.

In addition to having sufficient numbers of faculty available to serve as co-advisors at project centers, the two most prominent challenges are the additional costs to the students (airfare, local subsistence) and simply the unanticipated developments that invariably occur, usually at the worst possible times. Recently, for example, the program experienced record flooding in Venice, which displaced project teams from their living quarters; a political demonstration that closed the Bangkok international airport, where project teams were scheduled soon to arrive; and a fire that destroyed the community center in Cape Town where our project teams did much of their work—with all of these happening in the same week!


Study abroad programs contribute an important dimension to the concept of holistic education. The experience of dealing with seemingly ordinary functions, whether they be academic, work-related, or simply everyday life issues, in a foreign nation, especially outside the English-speaking world, greatly facilitates the understanding of the interconnectedness of the world and also the distinct cultures and social systems in which science, technology, commerce, and economic development proceed. The academic aspects of study abroad experiences are almost always more interdisciplinary and practical in nature, especially in programs involving internships, service learning, or other non-traditional forms of study abroad, because of the need to confront and deal with a foreign culture and different perspectives on the essential work of the program.

The Worcester Polytechnic Institute offers a distinctive type of international experience for undergraduates in that it is entirely project-based, requiring students to work in teams to solve significant problems at the project centers abroad. While it would be difficult for most other institutions to adopt directly, due to its dependence on the seven-week term calendar and the fact that the projects themselves are degree requirements (and thus the experiences do not need to be matched up to particular courses), this model presents a type of highly integrated learning experience, an example of holistic education, that contributes greatly to students' academic, personal, and professional development. We hope that it provides encouragement and insights from which other institutions might build programs well suited both to their own characteristics and to these important goals.


  1. Friedman, Thomas, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
  2. Friedman, Thomas, Hot, Flat, and Crowded:  Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How it Can Renew America, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
  3. Carlson, Curt, and Wilmot, William, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, Crown Business, 2006.
  4. Boston University website
  5. Tufts University website
  6. Vaz, Richard, "Scalable and Sustainable Programs for Internationalizing U.S. Engineering Education: Are they Achievable?"  Paper presented at the 7th ASEE Global Colloquium on Engineering Education, October 19-23, 2008.
  7. Parkinson, Alan, "Engineering Study Abroad Programs: Formats, Challenges, Best Practices," ASEE Global Colloquium, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, 2007.
  8. Grasso, Domenico, and Martinelli, David, "Holistic Engineering," in The Chronicle Review, March 16, 2007.
  9. The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century, National Academy Press, 2004.
  10. WPI Undergraduate Catalogue


March 11, 2009