Penn Global Seminar provides students with mind-opening experiences

As part of a Penn Global Seminar offered by the School of Engineering and Applied Science, 15 students traveled to Beijing and Shanghai during Spring Break to learn more about engineering and technology innovations in China. 

During spring break, 15 students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Wharton School, Management & Technology program, and School of Arts and Sciences traveled to Beijing and Shanghai to learn more about engineering and technology innovations in China. They were there as part of a Penn Global Seminar launched by Penn Engineering and Penn Global in 2017. 

The semester-long class was led by Engineering’s Howard Hu, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, and Ocek Eke, director for global and local service learning programs.

“The purpose of the class,” Hu says, “is to give students immersive, real world experiences to learn about how government policies can affect the development of the high-tech industry, using China as an example.”

In the weeks leading to trip, the students prepared for what they were about to experience.  

“Many of us had not had many prior diverse travel experience,” says Bill He, a senior with a double major in computer science and entrepreneurial management and operations at Wharton. “Some of us hadn't even left the tristate area. Going to a foreign country, especially one on the other side of the world, was quite a dramatic thing. Since the beginning of the course, there was a huge emphasis on understanding how to approach what we were going to see.”

The Beijing section of the trip was coordinated by the Penn Wharton China Center. Penn Abroad, through the Penn Global Seminars program, worked with the PWCC in Beijing and with Shanghai Jiao Tong University to execute the course.

In Beijing, PWCC also arranged a reception for the group, during which Penn alumni discussed how their Penn education has benefited their careers and experiences in China.

“One of biggest things for me,” he says, “is that, even though I have a huge interest in China, I still feel a disconnect between my educational experience, my cultural background, and how I can pursue opportunities at the present. It was really useful to connect with people who have pursued careers in Asia.”

The event, Liliane Kevine Ikirezi, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, says, was very eye-opening for her about opportunities that aren’t limited to Western countries. “Who knows, maybe in the future I could end up working in Hong Kong or Shanghai. The engineering language is the same everywhere, and this experience made me open to working in different parts of the world.”

The idea behind the Penn Global Seminars program is to embed a travel experience within a semester-long course at Penn. The engineering students traveled from Beijing to Shanghai aboard China’s high-speed rail, which they had been using as a case study. 

While in China, the group toured companies, research labs, and academic institutions. They also were able to visit iconic sites such as the Bird’s Nest from the 2008 summer Olympics, the Great Wall, and a historic water town just outside Shanghai.

While in China, the group toured companies, research labs, and academic institutions. They also were able to visit iconic sites such as the Bird’s Nest from the 2008 summer Olympics, the Great Wall, and a historic water town just outside Shanghai. Photo credit: Eliza Culp

Ikirezi was amazed by the technology she saw on the trip, in particular China’s high-speed rail system. Ikirezi’s interest in engineering and science was sparked by efforts to encourage girls to pursue careers in technology at her high school in Rwanda, where she picked up a fascination for how things work.

He, who was born and raised in China until he moved to Vancouver when he was 6, says it was interesting to compare and contrast his previous experiences in the country to the way things are now. He says he remembers taking a train from a southern city to Beijing that lasted 18 or 19 hours. With the high-speed rail, the same trip could be completed in less than ten hours.

In the remainder of the semester, the students will continue exploring the high-speed rail from four perspectives: societal and 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 engineering students traveled from Beijing to Shanghai aboard China’s high-speed rail, which they had been using as a case study. Photo credit: Eliza Culp

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

According to He, being assigned these different topics to investigate pushed the students to have an innately critical view of what they were experiencing. 

“Before coming to Penn,” Ikirezi says, “I had never traveled extensively. Even just coming here has been a very mind-opening experience. The things you read in books are not the same as actually being in the place, interacting with people, getting to see their way of living, and just getting to know a few words of the language. Being a student at Penn and taking advantages of opportunities such as this class gives me a real world education.