Although engineering schools in the U.S. provide a solid technical education, students don't get a taste of what it's like in the real world, working in industry. Some exceptions exist for a fortunate few who manage to land an internship or set up a work-study program. But the corporate U.S. culture provides a somewhat one-sided view on how the design process works. It would be better to round out a student's education by allowing him or her to experience the engineering challenge from within companies that are based outside the U.S.
In this global market, it should be relatively easy to set up exchange programs with overseas companies. This would let students immerse themselves in different cultures and learn how those cultures approach various engineering challenges. Suppose, for instance, that the company doesn't have a well-equipped lab—as the old saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention"—so need often forces designers to craft innovative solutions for specific problems.
I believe that experiencing a different ethnic environment firsthand is an invaluable opportunity. As an undergraduate engineering student, I had the chance to spend an entire summer working in a research laboratory in the Middle East through an organization called IAESTE United States (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, www.iaesteunitedstates.org). The experience opened my eyes to the challenges faced by engineers in other nations.
The world has changed considerably in the 30-plus years since I was an exchange student. Companies have become more global, with multiple design teams scattered across Asia, Europe, and the U.S. The worldwide nature of today's design teams makes it that much more important to appreciate the cultures and corporate environments in which each team member works.
IAESTE still exists and is still trying to match students to companies. However, there's a catch—for every American student sent overseas, a foreign student must be placed at a company here in the U.S. So IAESTE is constantly searching for firms willing to support an exchange student. There are some nominal costs incurred by the hosting company, which must provide a position as well as a stipend/salary to cover living expenses and lodging.
In these slow economic times, U.S. designers might be concerned that foreign interns could usurp their jobs. That, of course, is not the intent of any exchange program. Rather, the point is to expose foreign students to how American companies approach design or manufacturing. They can then bring the acquired knowledge back to their homeland. It works the same way for American students. Once the students graduate and enter their local work force, the experience they gained can help immeasurably.
For these programs to continue to help engineering students all around the world, IAESTE U.S. and other organizations like it need industry support in the form of hosting companies willing to "hire" exchange students. Most U.S. companies already employ engineers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Why not take the next natural step and participate in a student exchange program? The benefit may not be realized directly in the work done, but rather in the way the design team functions and how members interact with each other. This sort of benefit is especially apropos in the U.S., where it's not unusual for design teams to resemble a mini United Nations, with team members originating from a half-dozen or more countries.
I strongly encourage companies to become active in student exchange programs. The benefits are subtle while also profound. If you were granted an overseas education experience, I'd like to hear about it. Please let me know how it affected your view on our industry and the way that you participate in multinational design teams.