Engineering and Physics Faculty Research and Publications


Raising Students’ Cultural Awareness through Design Scenarios

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Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Raising Students’ Cultural Awareness when Partnering with Developing Countries Engineering programs across the United States, with a variety of motivations and objectives, have increasingly partnered their students with developing communities. These partnerships are often characterized by engineering projects with the dual focus of developing the students’ engineering competencies while also benefiting the developing community. Yet, as shown by along history of engineering in sustainable community development, these partnerships can be considerably complex on account of the general cultural differences between the partnering groups. When working with developing countries, cultural differences increase the possibility of failure, as evidenced by many examples of community service projects that were not accomplished because of a lack of sensitivity toward cultural differences. In order to intentionally engender such awareness in students from a variety of engineering project teams that work with developing communities, we created a learning module targeting these students. Although there are many important facets of cross-cultural competence, the learning objectives of this activity were for the students to be able to (1) identify the cultural differences between the project team and the partnering community and (2) competently navigate the cross-cultural interactions within the partnerships. In order to achieve these objectives we used various tools. During the skills session students were shown cross-cultural critical incidents(i.e., case-studies and/or scenarios) that describe puzzling interactions with people from other countries or cultures. Students were given some minutes to reflect about the story they just heard and then they wrote about how they would behave in such a situation. Following this exercise, we guided them into understanding the most appropriate behavior(s) in such interactions and unpacked relevant cultural differences. Additionally, students also interacted with three engineering teaching assistants, all of whom have engaged in rich, cross-cultural experiences. These teaching assistants told stories about their cross-cultural experiences and what they learned from these experiences. Both at the beginning and at the end of the skill session students were given questionnaires aimed to measure various dimension of cross-cultural competence and the relative change after the activity. At the end of the skill session, students were asked to reflect on what they have learned during the activity and how this new knowledge will affect the way they will interact with international project partners in the future. The students’ responses and reflections, together with relevant demographics, were collected and analyzed. In this paper, we discuss: (1) the detailed content of the learning module and (2) the results of analysis on the collected data. Moreover, we situate this discussion in relevant literature on engineering and sustainable community development. Finally, we consider the implications of these findings for engineering programs that partner, or seek to partner, with developing communities.


This paper was presented at the 2013 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition held June 23-26, 2013.

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American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)