Worldwide Engagement

Global Engineering Program aims for international impact

Creating sustainable community development in Swaziland, telecommunications systems in Ghana and Uganda, or a water-harvesting program in Kenya are potential candidates in a portfolio of real-world challenges that Purdue engineering students could tackle in their senior capstone projects.

Those and other world needs would follow a successful 2008 global design team project, where five Purdue seniors designed a West Bank water system that is now under construction. Working at Purdue, students would pair with a global partner on a project of global significance and at the end of the semester travel for a week or two to deliver their work.

Vital, real-life experiences for students are just part of the goals of the expanding Purdue Global Engineering Program (GEP), reports Rabi Mohtar, named in April as its first permanent director. A Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering since 1996, Mohtar has long focused on global water needs.

Now, he’s widening and deepening the reach and range of GEP, organized in 2005 with a mission to “define, develop, synthesize, and/or leverage from existing initiatives an integrated portfolio of opportunities and programs that support Purdue students, faculty, and staff to be leaders in the global network of engineering professionals.”

The program’s expanding activities will include fostering collaborative research, especially in areas of global concern; getting involved in global research networks; and creating regional or thematic research clusters. Mohtar also has his eye on a “focused global footprint with meaningful, constructive impact” and technology transfer that could address international development challenges, among other plans.

He’s tapping the successes of existing study-abroad programs and individual professors’ global ties and creating new international opportunities. “I’m not only interested in students traveling abroad, I’m interested in an integrated experience where students, faculty and staff engage in global opportunities,” Mohtar says. “We are building an integrated program with a large portfolio of global activities.”

For faculty, it might include taking students abroad or collaborating with peer institutions in research on climate change, water, food, health, or other global challenges. “In many areas, we cannot do it alone. We need global partnerships.”

Many Purdue faculty have the potential to make an impact on the world, so Mohtar hopes to design a program that would allow them to effect change in the challenges facing hunger, water, and food. About 50 or 60 engineering faculty currently have “significant touch” internationally, Mohtar says. His goal is for all 300-plus engineering faculty to be involved internationally.

While study-abroad programs offer students unique experiences, they’re too expensive or time-consuming for some students. “We have to provide a more flexible portfolio that allows students to have international experiences,” Mohtar says. “And we want to expand opportunities beyond traditional destinations to include less populous areas.”

Currently, about 200 of the college’s 6,300 undergraduates participate in some global activity each year. “I would like the Global Engineering Program to grow, so every engineering student has an opportunity for a global experience and to take advantage of the wide scope of learning portfolios on campus and abroad.”

Indiana businesses, too, stand to gain from the program. “We’re launching Engage Indiana, a program designed to help small businesses achieve global reach.”

What drew Mohtar to the position of GEP director, he says, is “the potential for impact, making a difference.”

-Kathy Mayer