COECS dean working to expand study abroad opportunities for students
Posted: 11/30/2010
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Dr. David Allen, dean of The University of Texas-Pan American's College of Engineering and Computer Science, has always been a big believer in students traveling abroad to expand their education.

Dr. David H. Allen

For almost two decades, Allen has developed programs that have allowed his engineering students to travel all over the world for their studies.

Now he's working to expand that opportunity for UTPA engineering students. Allen, who came to the University in August, recently visited colleagues at the University of Rouen in France to develop a study abroad program that will include UTPA students starting in summer 2011. He is also working on creating an internship program in Spain among other programs that will provide students with international experiences.

"I'm a very strong believer that engineering education has had a missing dimension and it's outside the classroom where the dimension was missing," said Allen, who is a 2008 recipient of the Michael P. Malone International Leadership Award, given by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities to honor educators who have made significant contributions to advance international education at these institutions.

Allen has created study abroad programs at Texas A&M University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has had more than 1,000 students from those institutions travel overseas for their education and has taught in 20 countries on four continents. UTPA will join University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Saskatchewan in sending students to Rouen for the study abroad program through a partnership already established between the other three institutions.

He said he is looking into creating an internship program in Spain for graduate students at UTPA because they might be interested in studying and living in that country for its cultural history related to Hispanic communities.

"Everyone needs to get out of their own backyard and see other parts of the world and see other cultural societies," Allen said. "One of the reasons I was so attracted to coming here is because I spent so much of my life in other countries and other cultures -- I lived in France, I lived in Italy, spent a lot of time in Brazil and a lot of time in Sweden -- I wanted to come down here and see the culture, I wanted to be immersed in a different culture and see what's it's like. It's a very interesting culture, but the people who are in this culture who have never been anywhere else need to see other cultures as well. It makes you understand the world, it makes you tolerant of other cultures, it makes you appreciate the complexity of the planet that we live on."

The college dean said providing opportunities for engineering students to travel abroad is necessary because engineering has become a global field.

"It's a worldwide economy now, engineering can be outsourced and the graduating students in China and India will work for one fourth of what our students will work for. So our students are likely to go and work all over the world," he said.

Though receiving an education in another country benefits students, Allen said it is expensive to pay for such opportunities.

Allen is in the process of applying for a FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education) grant through the U.S. Department of Education to help students accepted into the study abroad and, later, the internship programs pay for their studies.

Forming the summer study abroad program and the internship is part of Allen's goal to bring more collaborative opportunities to students in the college he oversees.

He and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Rouen are also working on bringing UTPA into an international joint laboratory where students and faculty from Rouen will come to the American institutions and Nebraska and UTPA send their students and faculty to Rouen for studies and research.

"What we do here is manufacturing. What they do in Nebraska is mechanics of materials and what they do at Rouen is polymer chemistry," Allen said. "By being combined we're better ... when you take different disparate research groups and combine them it's better." Having this agreement will be another way to expose UTPA students to other cultures, Allen said.

"One of the challenges we have at UT Pan American is that because the average income is significantly lower than the rest of the country, there is a challenge for students to afford to study abroad or do any kind of international education during their undergraduate studies. One of the things you can do to help still give them international experience is to have international people come to this University so they can participate in international culture," he said.

Allen said he hopes forming these partnerships between UTPA and other institutions will lead to offering a dual degree program at the master's level, either with the University of Rouen or a university in Spain. Under the program - one is already in place at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Rouen - students take half of their courses at UTPA and half at the other institution. They graduate with two diplomas: one from UTPA and one from the other university.

Developing international programs not only enhanced the quality of education for both the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Rouen, it also inspired many students to pursue master's and doctoral degrees, said Dr. Mehrdad Negahban, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and U.S. director of the Advanced Mechanics and Materials Engineering International Laboratory that was formed between the two institutions.

"Today's engineers frequently need to work in an environment that includes multiple international skills. There is practically no employer of engineers that does not have international partners, suppliers, manufacturing plants or markets. A recognition of this has pushed most leading institutions to provide multiple international experiences for their students," Negahban said.

Negahban said Allen was responsible for helping build opportunities for students to study and have internships overseas.

Currently, about one-fifth of engineering students who graduated from UNL participating in study, research or internships in a foreign country, he said.

Having UTPA join the partnership will enhance the institutions' goals of preparing students for the global job market and piquing their interest in travelling abroad.

"UTPA has a special place in our growth in providing students with international skills and interesting them in research opportunities," he said, adding that a student from UTPA has already participated in a summer research project with UNL students that was hosted by the University of Rouen a few years ago. "For us, UTPA represents a special opportunity to attract a skilled group of students into considering further STEM education, and, in particular, research careers and faculty who will want to collaborate with UNL and UR."