STEM Majors Need Increased Flexibility for International Success

It’s a rare engineering or science student who has never suddenly wondered, perhaps as he or she frantically crams for an exam in the suffocating late-night hours, “When will I ever use this?”

Many students slogging through the death march of calculus and basic science courses fail to see how their degrees will actually help others, and some switch majors or drop out altogether.

The week before spring break, three other students and I gave a presentation to the Engineering Advisory Council on international opportunities available to engineering students at MSU. While waiting to speak, employees from companies as diverse as Boeing and American Express discussed how important international experiences and cultural sensitivities are.

One woman mentioned awareness of time zones — and I couldn’t suppress questions about the triviality of that aspect of an international education. This shallow concern raises the central question of this article: How can MSU create meaningful international experiences for its science students?

MSU is now trying harder than ever, but these efforts merit close inspection. Of particular note are the brand-new International Engineering Certificate and the community involvement award that our Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter won last fall. The first is an effort to prepare students for an increasingly globalized world, by integrating flexible elective courses on the language and culture of a specific region into an already jam-packed engineering course load.

The second deserves mention because the minute EWB won the award, MSU’s various propaganda arms went crazy, talking about what a really swell university we are, eager to collect on the success of a relatively independent student group.

This spring break, as a Spanish and civil engineering major, I traveled with Montana Tech’s EWB chapter to El Salvador. We worked on an ongoing project in the western part of the country to replace a too-small culvert, fill a ravine and reroute an eroded road.

While the engineering challenges are substantial, much of the work we did this break involved extensive community meetings — from meeting with local leaders at public schools to sitting down with the mayor and her staff. Good Spanish, clearly, is a prerequisite, but so too is the ability to understand Salvadoran culture and institutions and operate within them.

When MSU designs parts of its curricula — like the mandatory junior and senior design classes for engineers — it must remain flexible in its approach. Instead of mandating that every student slog through a 150-person lecture on engineering design, exceptions need to be made for students who are passionately involved in other projects — projects that often do a better job of teaching the material than any course.

Science and engineering degrees are hard, and every student must understand the basic concepts in order to be successful. However, if MSU — and America as a nation — are to continue producing exceptional STEM graduates, universities must make an effort to connect students to the real world. Students, especially younger ones, need to see how they are actually making a difference, even if only a small one, in someone else’s life.

After all, there are a lot easier ways to make six figures than engineering, but if correctly tapped, these sorts of majors possess some of the most potential for developing concrete ways to help others at home and abroad.