A ‘Different’ Course Generates Amazing Experiences

The following is the second of a two-part blog series, "The International Classroom." The first post offers the perspective of a Science, Technology and Society Scholars student.

The University of Cuenca (UCuenca) in Ecuador has enjoyed a positive relationship with the University of Maryland (UMD) for the past 10 years. Every year, a number of students from UMD’s “Education, Technology and Society: Ecuador in Context” course come to our country and experience our culture while they work on projects for their course. The course is taught by Matt Aruch, assistant director of UMD’s Science, Technology and Society Scholars program.

Students in classroom.jpgHowever, this year we tried something different: With the support of UMD’s Global Classrooms, a course combining students from both universities was jointly offered by UCuenca and UMD. “International Perspectives on Emerging Science and Technology” would explore the intersection of technology and society and how each impacts the other, comparing examples from Ecuador and the United States. The class was made possible thanks to Matt’s efforts and the unconditional help of both the sub-dean of the UCuenca engineering school, Dr. Lizandro Solano, and the English Professor at UCuenca’s Institute of Languages, Ana Loja.

I am a civil engineering professor at UCuenca; my area of interest is seismic design and the behavior of structures. I obtained my doctorate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., so I know what is like to study in the United States. Thus, I offered to help with this new Global Classrooms course. In my opinion, it was a great opportunity for our students to experience taking a class from a top-ranked U.S. university and to improve and practice their English. Moreover, the experience would improve their resumes since all of our chosen students have as a goal to pursue a master’s degree or a doctorate abroad.

I also thought the concepts of the class would help our aspiring engineers put into perspective how they are impacting greater society with new technologies. In my opinion, the undergraduate engineering program here at UCuenca may be more demanding than the coursework offered in comparable American programs. For example, students here in Ecuador are required to write a thesis on top of their standard five-year undergraduate studies in order to graduate.

However, sometimes we focus only on the technical aspect of engineering, while in the United States, there are classes like this one that give students a more complete profile. Currently, there is no course at UCuenca that examines the ideas covered by the Global Classrooms course.

One of my students, Sebastian Zambrano, commented on this. “The global classroom course was interesting, because it helped us learn new things,” he said. “Most of them were completely different than the typical things that we are used to in our major.”

High academic performance

For this class, the students from UCuenca were chosen based on their high academic performance. All of the students who participated are finishing their fifth (last) year of their undergraduate programs. The class started at the end of January, which is the start of our short vacation month in February for our students. However, having the opportunity to take a class from UMD was enough motivation for students to put everything else aside and participate during their vacation.

The classes took place every Tuesday and Thursday morning this past semester, with students from UMD and UCuenca sitting in their own classrooms and connected through a virtual conferencing platform. Matt and I struggled with technology at first, but we learned as went along and we worked on improving the flow of the class. The common problems that we had to overcome were not being able to hear each other and finding ways to facilitate class participation on both sides.

Cuenca students bus.jpgBut it worked out, and the experience was truly valuable for students. “The Global Classroom course was very interesting because it allowed us to share knowledge and experiences with people from another country with a different culture and a different reality,” said David Barrera, one of my students. “I liked the idea of looking for solutions to global problems with different points of view.”

Most amazing experience

As a final project, each UCuenca student paired up with a UMD student to work on a research topic and create a poster to be presented at College Park Scholars’ Academic Showcase on the UMD campus. These research projects looked at the influences of technology on our society today.

All 11 of our Ecuadorian students were able to travel to the United States last month to present their final projects with their UMD classmates. This was the most amazing experience for them. The majority of them have never been to the United States. For one of my students, it was his very first time on a plane.

The final showcase event was a unique event that our students were able to experience. All the Cuenca students presented their projects—along with almost 700 other projects from across UMD’s Scholars program!

I think these kind of events give students motivation to do research and interact with other students. Engineering students at UCuenca do have opportunities to take part in poster presentations, but currently, there is nothing at our university as large and diverse as Academic Showcase. It was really nice to see all of the students working together and our Cuenca students communicating and presenting everything in English.  

Cuenca students in front of Capitol.jpgAside from Academic Showcase, the experience of visiting such a beautiful campus and seeing students’ lives in the United States was the best motivation for our students to keep working hard in order to pursue their graduate studies. Another highlight was seeing the robotics lab, which was especially interesting for our electrical engineering students. (I myself really liked when Dr. Brian Phillips, a professor of civil engineering, presented his research to us on earthquake and wind engineering.)

“The Global Classroom initiative offered me one of the best experiences I have had during my college life,” my student Bryam Astudillo told me. “For sure, this program is a great opportunity to get to know and to work with people that have come from different social aspects and cultures.”

All of these events caused an impact on every UCuenca student—now they all want to pursue their graduate degrees at UMD!

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About the author:

Francisco Xavier Flores Solano is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Cuenca. His main research interests are seismic design and behavior of structures when subjected to large earthquakes. Flores has an undergraduate degree from the University of Cuenca and a master’s degree from Virginia Tech. He received his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

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