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Cornell Engineering

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By Chris Dawson

Ithaca is a truly beautiful place. Spring is glorious, summer spectacular, and autumn stupendous. The light on a crisp, clear winter morning would inspire Renaissance masters. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there are times in an Ithaca winter when the world can feel like it has shrunk down to just the small snowy segment visible as you cross the Pew Engineering Quad with your head down, eyes narrowed, muscles tensed against the windy cold, making your way to a 9 a.m. final exam. At times like these, Cornell can seem isolated up on its hill overlooking Ithaca and the southern end of Cayuga Lake, barely visible through the squall.

But this isolation is an illusion. You can’t see them through the blinding snow, but there are tendrils radiating out from the Quad and connecting Cornell Engineering with people and places all over the world. Some of these links head off to China, others to Spain or Germany or Tanzania. Still others rise up into low-Earth orbit, and beyond. Cornell engineers come from everywhere and they go everywhere. 

Long before there even was a College of Engineering at Cornell, students and professors were leaving their native countries to come to Ithaca. In 1868 in the very first undergraduate class at the newly formed Cornell University was one unknown student of “engineering and mechanical arts” who listed his home address as “Italy.” These days, Cornell keeps much better records. More than 2,500 students from countries outside of the United States applied for admission to the class of 2018 and the current undergraduate engineering population has students from 32 foreign countries.

At the graduate level, the number of countries represented is even greater. In fact, more than half of the 2,000 graduate students pursuing engineering degrees come from outside of the United States. These 1,042 foreign-born students represent an astounding 67 countries from six continents. (So far, no Antarcticans have registered at Cornell.)

By far, the largest contingent of foreign students comes to Cornell from China. Approximately 80 undergraduates and 550 graduate students from China study at Cornell Engineering. Though they might not know it, there is a long tradition of talented Chinese students coming to Cornell. The tradition dates back to 1901, when Alfred Sao-ke Sze travelled to Ithaca from China and enrolled as a freshman. His brother, S.C. Thomas Sze, followed a year or two later and became the first Chinese student to earn an engineering degree from Cornell.

Thomas Sze then returned to China with his newly-awarded degree in mechanical engineering and began his career with the Peking Mukden Railway. He went on to be a driving force in the development of China’s national railway system, as well as playing a key role in the development of China’s banking system and electrical distribution network.  Today, the director’s position in Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is named for S.C. Thomas Sze.

Of course, the student traffic between Cornell Engineering and the rest of the world does not flow in only one direction.  Cornell Engineering students also go abroad for a summer, a semester, or a year of study. Melissa Bazley, associate director of Engineering Advising, reports that in the 2014-15 academic year, 60 engineering students will spend a semester or the year studying in a foreign institution. “This is a significant increase over the last ten years,” says Bazley. “Engineering students are starting to see that it’s really not that hard to make it happen.

A significant portion of Bazley’s job is to collaborate with CU Abroad assisting engineers in the process of finding a school, ensuring credits will transfer, talking with department advisors, submitting the required paperwork, and helping students who want to study abroad plan every step along the way. “One thing that was holding some people back from going abroad was this perception that you can’t do it as an engineering student,” says Bazley. “And now they are seeing that this is just not true.”

Paul Giannelis ‘16 MAE spent his sophomore spring semester at the Technische Universitat Dresden in Germany. “It wasn’t that hard to make it happen,” says Giannelis. “I met with Melissa and then took the initiative to find a program. The one I found was run in conjunction with Boston University and it focused on mechanical engineering. The credits all transferred and it was a great experience.”

Caroline Caglioni ’15 Env.E echoes Giannelis. “I think Cornell Engineering students underestimate the likelihood of finding a program that will work within their major,” says Caglioni. “I went through the Cornell-Cantabria Exchange Program in Santander, Spain and it was easy to arrange.”

Professor Todd Cowen of Cornell’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering designed the University of Cantabria program especially for Cornell Engineering students. “Back in 2007 I had developed a working relationship with Professor Iñigo Losada at Cantabria,” says Cowen. “I saw how students in the university systems in Europe had real mobility to spend time at other universities. I started to think about how to get U.S. students into European schools. So, we started an exchange program.” The Cornell-Cantabria Exchange Program is piloting a track for chemical engineering majors and seven chemical engineering juniors will be joining seven civil, environmental, and mechanical engineering majors already at Cantabria this spring.

Chemical engineering majors can also choose a five-week summer session at Imperial College. The program, started in the summer of 2014, is taught by a Cornell faculty member in cooperation with the teaching assistants at the state-of-the-art ChemEng Discovery Space at Imperial College, (which was recently rated as the sixth-best university in the world). Undergraduate chemical engineering students can earn six credits and live in London for a summer. A separate program for M.Eng. students is designed specifically for those whose undergraduate degree is in something other than chemical engineering. Students dive into a four-week crash course that will get them up to speed as they start their M.Eng. program back at Cornell in September.

Cowen, Caglioni, and Giannelis all agree on the value of studying abroad. “The education you get in the classroom is just a small percentage of a total education,” says Cowen. “Having international experience shows you there are many ways to put together a society. If you want to have broad impact as an engineer, you need to understand more than just one culture.” 

Caglioni adds, “It’s all about challenging yourself and putting yourself in a new context/environment. It makes you grow.” Giannelis agrees. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. My time in Germany changed me in profound ways—I understand myself better.”

The value of studying in a foreign country goes far beyond the technical education students receive. In fact, Cornell places such a high value on study abroad that the university has adopted a goal of increasing the portion of undergraduates who participate in an international experience to 50 percent by the year 2020. Fredrik Logevall, vice provost for International Affairs, says, “This great university aspires to be one of the top ten research universities in the world. To succeed, we must infuse an international perspective into our curriculum, our culture, and all that we do. We need to produce global citizens, and enabling our students to have an educational experience abroad is an excellent way to do that.”

Les Trotter, associate dean of Cornell Engineering and a member of Cornell’s Internationalization Council, can attest personally to the value of working or studying in another country. “I can look at intellectual corners I have turned and new paths of research I have taken and I can trace these directly to time I spent abroad,” he says. “When you are in a new environment, the mind turns on its ‘learning’ button. These sorts of experiences—just being in a new country—you learn from it. You can’t help but learn from it.”

Besides Cantabria University in Spain, Cornell Engineering has formal study abroad exchange programs with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Cornell has also approved transfer of technical credits from a long list of institutions, including Ecole Centrale Paris, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, Queen Mary College in London, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and the University of Queensland in Australia. 

Back from her year in Spain, Caglioni is more convinced than ever of the value of engineering students studying abroad. “Before I even came to Cornell I knew I wanted to spend a semester in another country,” says Caglioni. “So much learning happens when you are on your feet out in the world. Part of going abroad is an opening of the mind. But another part of it is just learning really valuable life skills, particularly in another language. I had to figure out how to open a bank account and how to find an apartment and how to get around Europe when we traveled. I grew up so much in so many ways.”

For students who would like an international experience without committing to an entire semester or year abroad, there are other options for spending time overseas. The AguaClara team travels to Honduras each January to work on water treatment plants that provide safe drinking water for more than 30,000 people.  AguaClara also has new project sites in India. The Engineers For a Sustainable World team travels to Sabana Grande, Nicaragua to work with two local groups, Las Mujeres Solares and Grupo Fenix, on issues of alternative energy and sustainability. The Engineers Without Borders team has begun a collaboration with a non-profit group called Engineers in Action in Calcha, Bolivia to improve water quality there. Cornell University Sustainable Design has designed an early childhood education center in Johannesburg, South Africa. Students majoring in Science of Earth Systems have had the chance to attend a summer field course run jointly by EAS professor Suzanne M. Kay and the Universidad de Buenos Aires in the Argentinian Andes. 

For engineering undergraduate students, the partial list above makes it clear that the possibilities for having an international experience while at Cornell are wide open. In his 2012 white paper on “internationalizing” Cornell, President David Skorton wrote: “If we are to educate students for global citizenship, we must offer them language study, an understanding of history and of cultures beyond their own, and meaningful international experiences. We must equip them to live and work in a world whose chief problems transcend national boundaries.” 

Trotter argues that engineering students, who are developing the technical skills to have direct and immediate impact on some of the most pressing global problems, are the very students who should be studying abroad and gaining international experience while still in school. “One thing about engineering as a general field is that it is so useful,” says Trotter. “Engineers can a have a real impact on real problems right away—even as students. This is why engineering students need to get out in the world as undergrads.”

In order to both recognize and encourage engineering undergraduate students to have international experiences, the college started its Global Fellows program in 2008. Students who are named as Engineering Global Fellows receive a certificate from the dean, have their name and picture displayed in Carpenter Hall, and have the chance to share their experiences with other interested students. The first group of Global Fellows in 2008 numbered 58. In 2013 there were 80 Global Fellows recognized by Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Cornell Engineering.

Another hugely important aspect of Cornell Engineering’s global reach is the faculty. Many of the more than 250 full-time faculty of the college are from outside of the United States. Just as in the student body, six continents are represented any time the full faculty gathers. Whether from India or Indiana, England or New England, professors are often drawn to Cornell Engineering by the quality of students and faculty, the extensive modern facilities, and the reputation for collaboration across disciplines.

Cornell Engineering has a well-earned and long-held reputation as an institution actively involved in research projects and collaborations around the world. Whether it is a windfarm off the coast of Denmark, a telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert, a rural health clinic in Kenya, or the Biliu River Basin in China, there are Cornell Engineering professors on-site, doing research that will have a real impact on how people live and interact with the world.

Today’s Cornell Engineering faculty members are following in the footsteps of earlier generations of Cornell researchers, including the group of professors who led one of the first full-scale scientific expeditions to the Brazilian Amazon in the 1870s, and Jack Oliver and Bryan Isacks of the Department of Geological Sciences (now Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), whose use of earthquake seismology in the South Pacific helped bring the theory of plate tectonics into wide acceptance in 1968.

Professor Derek Warner of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering points out one value of international collaborations: “For our research group to be at the forefront of our field, we must collaborate with others to gain access to state-of-the-art knowledge and toolsets,” says Warner. “Being that research occurs in many countries, limiting collaborations to the United States would significantly limit the knowledge and toolsets that we could access. Accordingly this would limit our group’s ability to be at the forefront.” Warner’s research group at Cornell studies the underlying physical mechanisms that control the failure of engineering materials. Many of his collaborators and co-authors are from countries other than the United States. 

Rick Allmendinger, Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell and a visiting professor in the Programa de Doctorado of the Universidad Catolica del Norte in Antofagasta, Chile, agrees. “International collaboration is invaluable,” says Allmendinger. “Most importantly, it brings diversity of thought and different cultural perspectives to a problem of interest. The resulting science and engineering are likely to be better when approached from multiple points of view.”

Associate Professor Matthew Pritchard, also of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, concurs. His work takes him to South America to study surface deformations of the Earth resulting from earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, and human activities. “There are lots of reasons to be involved in international scientific collaborations,” says Pritchard. “When doing fieldwork in another country, having local knowledge is key for scientific understanding and working together in the cultural and logistical context. For my projects studying volcanism at the regional or global scale, having international collaborations makes the science better by bringing together research teams with the necessary expertise.”

According to a study published recently in the online journal PLOS ONE, international collaboration between researchers doesn’t just lead to better science, it can also be a good career move. The authors found that international collaboration leads to publication in more highly esteemed journals and a greater number of citations. Matthew Smith of the University of Chicago and his collaborators found that “as the number of countries represented in the author list increases, articles are more likely to be published in journals with higher impact factors and accrue more citations than peer publications which have fewer countries represented.”

While faculty members from all of the schools and departments within Cornell Engineering either do research overseas or collaborate with researchers from other countries, faculty from Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering have the most obvious reasons to leave Ithaca for their work. “The Earth is complex and heterogeneous,” says John Thompson, the Wold Family Professor in Environmental Balance for Human Sustainability in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “To understand it, we have to work in diverse areas with different rocks, different processes, and different environments. Simply put, the rocks won’t come to us—we have to go to them and understand them in place.” Rick Allmendinger says, “Climate change, hazards, and resources don’t recognize human borders so we go to the best place on Earth to study the phenomena or resources in which we are interested.”

Cornell engineers—faculty, students, and alumni—have been “going to where the rocks are” for many generations. Each year, more and more students study abroad or travel with student project teams. Faculty members understand that for Cornell to be a world-class research institution, they need to be out in the world, collaborating with leading scientists and researchers wherever they are. Peter Frazier, assistant professor of operations research and information engineering at Cornell, sums it up nicely when he says, “By opening yourself up to the whole world, rather than just the United States, you allow yourself to work on a greater range of interesting problems.”

Dean Collins is proud of the international reach of Cornell Engineering. “Cornell Engineering has a rich history of successful and important scientific collaborations with researchers all over the world. But to remain a true global leader in engineering education and research, we need to do even better,” says Collins. The problems of the 21st century are global. Knowledge and innovation do not respect national boundaries. “More of our students need to spend time abroad. Our professors need to continue active collaborations with researchers all over the world. And our graduates need to be out in the world, making a difference.”

If you have spent a winter at Cornell, then you have probably also been on campus for spring, summer, and fall. If so, you know how gloriously beautiful this part of the world can be when the sun is shining and the hills are a million shades of green and the lake is sparkling off in the distance. On days like these, you can almost see those filaments spreading out to all the places Cornell engineers live and work and learn. From its perch above Cayuga, Cornell Engineering continues to be a truly international institution.