Penn Engineering Course Gives Students a Global Perspective

Over spring break, 13 students in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science travelled to Beijing and Shanghai to learn more about engineering and technology innovations happening in China. They went as part of a new semester-long global immersion class launched this spring.


“In engineering, it can be tough to schedule study abroad,” said Henok Abraham, a senior in bioengineering, “so an intensive program like this gives you that travel experience and really broadens your horizon both educationally and culturally.”

The class was led by Howard Hu, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, and Ocek Eke, director of study abroad in SEAS.

“We tried to expose our students to both Chinese companies and international companies operating there and to look at how things are operating in China,” Hu said.

The experience was especially meaningful for Cindy Luo, a freshman in Engineering.

“My parents are both from China, but I've never been back,” Luo said. “This experience was definitely emotional for me because I got to experience part of my culture. In a way, it was like I didn't know I was missing that part. When I went back to China, I got to learn about myself.”

The students’ time was split between Beijing and Shanghai. They spent about five days in each city. The Beijing section of the trip was coordinated by the Penn Wharton China Center, which arranged their hotel, local transportation, tour guide and train tickets.

In Beijing, PWCC also arranged a reception for the group with Penn alumni.

“I haven't really been to many networking events yet,” Abraham said. “To hear their stories and how far they've come inspires you to keep going.”

The idea behind Penn’s global seminars is to embed a travel experience within a semester or year-long course of study.

The engineering students traveled from Beijing to Shanghai aboard Chian’s high-speed rail, which they had been using as a case study. They also had the opportunity to tour the State Key Lab of Rail Traffic Control & Safety.

“It was incredible because we got to experience firsthand what we were learning in class,” said Abraham. “We were doing a case study about the High-speed Rail so it was very surreal being on the train at the same time.”

While in China the group toured several companies, including Baidu and 3M. They also were able to visit iconic sites such as the Bird’s Nest from the 2008 summer Olympics and the Great Wall.

“I think for a lot of us the most memorable moment was the Great Wall,” Luo said. “When you think of China, the Wall is one of the most enduring symbols of strength and power. Walking it was one of the highlights of the entire trip: It was so captivating and exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time.”

In the remainder of the semester, the students will continue exploring the high-speed rail from four different perspectives: societal & environmental, economic, technological and international feasibility. They will also be looking at how cultural differences have enabled the high-speed rail to develop in China.

The students have also looked at other technologies such as photovoltaic solar panels, telecommunication, wireless cell phone communication and automobile engineering development in China. One of the goals, Hu said, is to see how government policy affects the development and effectiveness of these technologies.

According to Luo, the interdisciplinary aspect of the course makes it unique. In addition to learning inside a traditional classroom, they also gain international experience. It delves into topics such as business and technology, but also explores the culture, history, and politics of China.

“When you come to college, you want new experiences,” Luo said. “And when you have these kinds of experiences, it shapes the way you see the world. You start to gain a global perspective the more you come in contact with different people and cultures. With this class you learn about a new culture, and you get to experience it firsthand. The more you challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and to really immerse yourself in new cultures, the deeper your sense of compassion, tolerance, and understanding becomes.”

China Immersion