Paul C. Davidson 2018-02-16 23:45:12
Agricultural and biological engineers are well equipped to solve the diverse challenges facing society. However, can we better prepare our students for an ever-changing, global economy by immersing them in life-changing study abroad programs? ASABE member Alan Hansen strongly believed that a study abroad program could be one of the most critical learning environments for students when he initiated a project-based study abroad program at the University of Illinois in 2004. Alan envisioned a program that would combine cultural experience with technical experience through senior-level engineering projects in partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The one-month program extends from mid-July to mid- August and is structured to allow U of I students to team up with UKZN students to complete the construction and testing phases of their projects. The design phase occurs in the months leading up to travel, via email and social media. Once in South Africa, the U of I students spend their weekdays working long hours on their projects. On the weekends, their time is devoted to learning about the beautiful landscape, exotic wildlife, and rich history of the country. These weekend excursions include visiting wildlife game parks, hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains, surfing and swimming on the Durban beaches, zip lining, and visiting sugarcane farms and processing plants. Between 2004 and 2014, Alan led six groups, for a total of 46 students. In 2006, I participated as a first-year MS student. That study abroad trip was my first time out of the country, and it had a big impact on my later academic career—so much so that I led my own student group in 2015, and then returned in 2017 with a second group. Useful projects Throughout the years, the vast majority of participating students have majored in ABE or Technical Systems Management, which is part of our ABE department at the University of Illinois. However, students from a range of technical backgrounds have participated, including majors in other engineering disciplines and in the social and biological sciences. The engineering projects are generally focused on addressing the challenges of South African agricultural stakeholders, including rural communities and local agricultural industries. Examples include designing tools for cleaning and processing small grains, refining the equipment used for planting crops, improving the production of biodiesel, designing a low-cost and low-maintenance chicken brooder, using pumps to generate electricity from moving water, and designing irrigation systems for rural community gardening. Our students gain technical knowledge from these projects, and they get first-hand experience in working side-by-side with students from a different culture, with different perspectives, and often with a different native language. While the trips are relatively short, our U of I students always find it hard to say goodbye to the UKZN students, with whom they often develop life-long friendships. Not just work While the primary goal of the study abroad program is to increase the technical knowledge of our students and provide an international experience that cannot be replicated in the classroom, the students (and Alan and I) also find time to have some fun. Each of the four weekends is reserved for excursions that explore the numerous sights and experiences that South Africa has to offer. An extended weekend is reserved for the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game park. The whole group goes on self-guided driving tours throughout the approximately 240,000-acre park. As shown on the cover of this issue, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, cape buffaloes, and various species of antelope are common sights. On occasion, the students have also seen lions, cheetahs, and leopards. Another weekend is spent in the stunningly beautiful Drakensberg Mountains. The group stays in local cabins so they can explore the area’s hiking trails and swim in a mountain- fed pool. Don’t be too envious—the water in the pool is just a little above freezing! At the end of the day, it’s hard to compete with leaning back and gazing at the clear sky, filled with millions of stars. We do that every night. We also take a weekend to visit the Indian Ocean and the white sand beaches of Durban. Most of our students are from the Midwest, so this is often their first time at an ocean shore, and almost certainly their first time at the Indian Ocean. Finally, on the remaining weekend or during the week, we carve out time to do some zip lining, visit a sugarcane farm or processing plant, check out a crocodile farm, visit the Nelson Mandela Memorial, and of course do some shopping. At the end of the trip, the students always wish they had more time. Encompassing diversity The program remained nearly unchanged between 2004 and 2015, but we have since become more intentional about increasing the diversity of student majors. Thanks to support from a USDA grant, we were able to include students from wildlife biology, environmental science, and animal sciences on our most recent trip in the summer of 2017. Additionally, students were recruited not only from the University of Illinois but also from Northeastern Illinois University and Tuskegee University. This academic diversity supports our goal of bridging the gap between engineering and biology to produce better-rounded students who can work at the intersection of these important disciplines. In 2017, Dr. Michelle Green (co-PI and wildlife biologist) and I recruited six students into our WE CAN (Wildlife Engineers Co-managing Agriculture and Nature) fellowship program. We hope to recruit an additional eight fellows into our second group, which will begin in 2019. ASABE member Paul C. Davidson, Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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