U.S. engineering student grant program to focus on China

February 3, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - President Barack Obama has pledged to send 100,000 American students to China over the next four years, and the National Science Foundation has chosen Purdue University to help determine how to do it.

The university will test its concepts in summer research assignments issued through the NSF-sponsored International Research and Education in Engineering (IREE) Program.

Unlike previous years, Purdue has chosen to send American graduate and undergraduate students selected for the grants only to China instead of labs in countries around the world.

"China's voice is becoming increasingly prominent in world affairs and more influential in industry and research, and American professionals need to become more knowledgeable about Chinese language and culture," said Leah Jamieson, Purdue's John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering and Ransburg Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "We need to provide critical experience to young engineers early in their careers to help them become more globally conversant and competitive.

"This effort fits with Purdue's work to educate U.S. engineering students about other cultures in general, not only so that American companies can be more competitive globally but also so that our engineers can better collaborate with their international counterparts."

Even products manufactured in the United States have major components produced in other countries. Portions of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, for example, come from Japan, Europe, Australia and Korea.

China, however, represents the most fertile ground for global collaboration, said E. Daniel Hirleman, Purdue's William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering.

During a November 2009 trip to China, Obama pledged to send 100,000 U.S. students there in the next four years.

The decision to send the IREE students only to China will allow officials to develop protocols that could easily be used to increase the number of American students sent in future years, Hirleman said.

The university received an $878,736 grant from the NSF to reorganize the 2010 IREE program. Graduate student recipients will receive a stipend of $4,000 and undergraduates $3,000 to conduct engineering-related research in China from May to August.

"Why China? It is an economic giant with 20 percent of the world's population, its gross expenditures on research and development grew by more than 100 percent between 2000 and 2004, and that rate of growth has since continued, if not accelerated," Hirleman said.

This increased research activity also is reflected in a rising share of all science and engineering journal articles published by Chinese researchers.

China currently sends about 100,000 students to the United States annually, but fewer than 20,000 U.S. students study in China, Hirleman said.

The NSF initiated the IREE program in 2006 and annually issues about 100 grants for approximately $40,000 each. The approach, however, is less practical for sending much larger numbers of students, he said.

"There were 100 faculty working independently, and it meant officials in other countries had to deal with 100 different points of contact," Hirleman said. "Scaling that up to 100,000 just won't work."

Purdue, which ran the IREE grantees conference the past two years, proposed critical changes to the program to set the stage for meeting Obama's goal for China and similar goals for other countries, Hirleman said.

This year's pilot program will send 50 grant recipients - 30 graduate students and 20 undergraduates - but will group them in like areas, making it easier to administer, said Yating Chang, IREE program director and assistant director of Purdue's Office of Professional Practice.

"We saw the opportunity to scale it up by running a leaner operation," Chang said. "Group placement involves sending five or 10 students together to the same lab. This substantially reduces the overheard and makes scaling up more practical."

At the same time, the program will strive to better prepare recipients through a new orientation, language and cultural training, and background briefings gleaned from the experiences of previous grantees, she said.

"The assessments of these program components will also fuel empirical research that will bridge knowledge gaps in global engineering education," Chang said.

The IREE program is accepting applications, which are due Feb. 15. Applicants must be currently enrolled and in good academic standing as degree-seeking undergraduate or graduate students at a U.S. institution of higher education.

More information is available online at http://www.globalhub.org/iree

The globalHUB is an engineering education and research cybercommunity that represents 164 countries and is operated by a consortium of universities led by Purdue. Purdue engineering also is home to the Global Engineering Program and the Office of Professional Practice, both of which have facilitated international research and study abroad experiences for 615 participants, including 158 in China. 

Writer: Emil Venere, 765-494-4709, venere@purdue.edu

Sources:   Leah H. Jamieson,  (765) 494-5346, lhj@purdue.edu

                    E. Daniel Hirleman, 765-494-5688, hirleman@purdue.edu

                    Yating Chang, 765-494-7323, yatingchang@purdue.edu