Developing Students' Intercultural Awareness in Engineering: Enhancing International Project Management Skills
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Third year students across the whole of the Faculty of Engineering take an “Engineering Management” module, one strand of which covers the management of international projects. A number of activities have been designed and introduced into one lecture on this topic in order to improve students’ understanding of the importance of intercultural awareness in international projects and to capitalise on the cultural experience and knowledge of the international students in the Faculty.
The approach in designing the overall lecture, as well as the interactive exercise itself, may be transferrable to other subject areas outside engineering.
In line with the University’s aim to provide students with global perspectives and cross-cultural capability, staff from the Department of Mechanical Engineering decided in 2007 to introduce the activities outlined below within one lecture on “Managing International Projects” as part of an Engineering Management module.
A key module learning outcome for the theme of management of international projects is the understanding and appreciation of cultural differences and experience of working with people from other cultures.
In order to meet this learning outcome, the usual two-hour lecture on Managing International Projects within the Engineering Management module was adapted, so that as well as the usual content, since 2007 it has included the following elements:
- Use of international case studies (eg managing projects related to the building of a hospital in a developing country, taking into account local conditions) to illustrate the topic.
- Use of personal, culturally-related anecdotes from the lecturer and from the students (drawing on experiences of working and living abroad, discussing cultural assumptions, taking into account local conditions etc).
- A short interactive exercise drawing on students’ cultural capital, ie their knowledge of cultural codes in their own countries. This exercise is entitled “How to be Successful in Your Country: An Interactive Cultural Awareness Activity with Third Year Engineering students”. In this exercise, students are asked to provide their country of origin, indicate one thing that one must do and must not do in order to be successful in their country, and to plot their perception of their country of origin against the Kluckhohn-Strodtbeck Cross-Cultural Framework (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961). Following the lecture, the resulting information, which is extremely interesting and informative, is compiled and circulated to all students who participated in order to improve their cultural awareness and understanding of working in foreign countries. More details of this interactive exercise including the resulting information and analysis can be accessed at the bottom of this case study.
- Acknowledgement of the diversity of the group of students in the lecture and multiculturalism; all 33 countries’ flags were displayed and students were thanked for their participation in their own language on the final presentation slide.
By invitation from the module leader, a member of staff from Mechanical Engineering, Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, has given this lecture each year up to now. This decision was made based on Elena’s interest in the issues being addressed and her ability to draw upon her own experiences of developing cultural awareness, working with people from other countries and nationalities, and adapting to life in other countries.
The Faculty of Engineering has a very large number of international students across its eight departments, varying from 30% of the cohort in some departments to more than 50% in others. There have been mixed results in running group projects, partly due to difficulties in working together.
Up to 250 third year students from across the Faculty take the Engineering Management module each year.
Table 1: Engineering Management module cohort composition in 2006/2007
Student composition and backgrounds
- 228 students
- 35% international students
- 33 countries
- 37 different languages spoken in the classroom
The most time consuming part of preparation for the lecture was going through all the students’ nationalities on CIS, putting the statistics together, getting electronic copies of the relevant countries’ flags to display (see image on right) and finding how to say “thank you” in their languages for the final lecture slide.
Case studies and examples were collected for the lecture. This included information on the experiences of a former HoD who had gone to work abroad and how he and his family had coped with the change in circumstances.
In order to engage the students and make the lecture more interactive, the lecturer found it helpful to walk around the auditorium in which students were, as usual, sitting for the most part in groups according to their nationalities.
Honesty was found to be helpful in dealing with the issues and talking about difficulties in working with people from other cultural backgrounds. Some examples were given of cultural differences which can lead to misunderstandings, eg Mexicans tend to be very “touchy-feely” and this cultural attitude to personal space can surprise or offend people from other countries – as the lecturer herself (who is from Mexico) found once with a Malaysian student. Other examples include the importance of socialising with colleagues in some countries and the common UK social practice of drinking alcohol.
Throughout, the lecturer referred to the role and importance of cultural understanding etc as a part of the project work itself: as the students are engineers, they are used to focusing on projects.
From the lecturer’s point of view, it was the most enjoyable lecture ever, but was rather exhausting!
Feedback from students on this unit has been extremely positive. The exercise appears to have been positive in raising awareness amongst students of the intercultural awareness and communication skills which will help students to be effective in their future careers.
The celebration of diversity in the statistics, flags and slides were much appreciated by students.
However, in terms of enhancing home/international student integration, it was felt that awareness-raising exercises should also take place early on during the students’ degree courses. Therefore, it was decided to include a short lecture on working in an international environment within a year one Enterprise module in Mechanical Engineering. Following the lecture, students are asked to creatively reflect on what they have learnt in the module and submit their reflection notes together with any materials including songs, pictures, poems etc. This exercise has also been valued by students.
As well as benefitting students, the lecturer felt that the new approach and activities had helped develop her own confidence and adaptability. She had gone on to give a presentation to colleagues in Engineering on the outcomes of the exercise.
The results of the interactive exercise “How to be Successful in Your Country” form a resource containing tips from students on how to be successful in their home countries. This is circulated each year to Engineering students who have participated, but has also been made available to other staff and students across the University. The results from each year’s exercise will be added to the resource.
More detailed information on the approach taken can be found in the article by E. M. Rodriguez-Falcon, A. Symington and A. Hodzicentitled "How Can I be Successful in Your Country?": Media:How_Can_I_Be_Successful_in_Your_Country.doc
The results of the interactive exercise with students were used to produce “How to Be Successful in Your Country: A Guide for Students By Students”: Media:A_guide_for_students_by_students_2007_and_2008.doc