Assessing an Online Global Engineering Course with Embedded Virtual Exchange

Session Fr1: Nov 12, 11:20 AM


The pandemic halted study abroad and brought attention in new ways to the value of creating virtual, online opportunities for students to work with counterparts outside the U.S. This context added to existing challenges for international engineering education: Engineering students participate at lower rates in study abroad than students in other fields; there are financial and curriculum obstacles to access to travel and other international education opportunities for engineers; yet engineering students are destined to work in intercultural teams on projects in their professional careers. We propose to describe the results of a pilot course, “U.S. Engineering in a Global Context,” that our team designed in Summer-Fall 2020 and co-taught in Spring 2021.

This synchronous online course increases engineering students’ intercultural skills and awareness without travel. It was also designed to fit within the engineering curriculum by meeting a general education requirement that focuses on a critical examination of equity and identity in the U.S., including within a comparative context. We followed an iterative course design process as follows: we chose a core organizing framework, the intercultural praxis model, [1] to bridge equity and social justice with learning outcomes in intercultural learning. [2] We organized the initial weeks of the semester around brief case studies requiring students to practice framing, inquiry, dialogue, and reflection on their positionality as engineering students in the U.S., then shifted focus to examine cultural differences in engineering practices outside the U.S. Next, we designed a virtual exchange in collaboration with colleagues Philina Wittke and Dr. Christoph Merkelbach at the Technische Universitaet - Darmstadt (TUDa), Germany. Together we designed an exchange unit focused on intercultural project management that culminated in a remote intercultural team project. The project required combined groups of Virginia Tech and TUDa students to present research-based analysis of two prominent transatlantic engineering scandals that hinged on failed intercultural project management. The collaboration between our Virginia Tech and TUDa co-teaching team resulted in a set of common assignments and activities in weeks 13-15 of the U.S. semester, corresponding to week’s 1-3 of the TUDa Sommersemester, with synchronous online meetings.

Our assessment design also resulted from an iterative process. As qualitative researchers in the humanities, we were eager to adapt reflective writing into the course as a measure of learning. We anticipated difficulties in using quantitative measures and, after considering popular inventories (GPI, IDI) and many variables in the teaching context (a new course which would be run as a pilot; in an online, synchronous modality; with a relatively small enrollment of 11 students; and during a pandemic). In consultation with Dr. Kirsten Davis (Purdue University), we designed a mixed assessment to gain insights into how students’ perceptions changed before, during, and following the virtual exchange. With her permission and an eye to future comparative assessment work, we adapted three reflection prompts that Davis developed for her own courses. These reflections were incorporated into the weekly reflective writing assignments (weeks 1, 13, and 15) around the virtual exchange. Finally, we used a refined Ambiguity Tolerance Scale questionnaire [3] at weeks 1 and 16 in conjunction with a reflective writing prompt (week 16) that asked students to reflect on differences in their pre- and post- questionnaire results. While this pedagogical assessment was designed to reinforce students’ ownership of their intercultural learning, an unanticipated benefit has been that it also sheds light on the limitations of using the ambiguity tolerance scale during the pandemic online learning context.