Students learn more than technology in Thayer School’s new Thailand exchange program.
By Kathryn LoConte
It’s on the other side of the world, and culturally, Bangkok could not be more different from Hanover, New Hampshire. But that didn’t stop Professor Francis Kennedy from establishing an undergraduate engineering exchange program with Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University — a.k.a. “Chula.” In fact, for a program that aims to broaden the perspectives of engineering students from both Thailand and Dartmouth, difference is the point.
“The Thai students feel that studying successfully in the United States will be a big plus for them. For the Dartmouth students, it broadens their engineering program and more importantly their cultural awareness,” says Kennedy. “And with the rapid increase in globalization, which has significantly affected both our workplace and our daily lives, it is important for everyone, including engineers, to be aware of the cultural differences and similarities between people from different backgrounds. A period spent in a foreign country can make us better citizens of the world and may well open up career opportunities that might not be as available to people whose horizons are more limited.”
When scouting locales for an engineering foreign exchange program, Kennedy brought his longtime familiarity with Thailand into play. While working there on a collaborative research project sponsored by the Thai government, Kennedy investigated Chulalongkorn. “Chula is arguably the best university in the country,” he says. “For 90 years or so they’ve been in business as an engineering school.” He arranged for the Thayer program to be based at Chula’s International School of Engineering, where classes are taught in English.
In January of 2009, Charnice Barbour ’10 and Casey Stelmach ’10, the first Dartmouth students in the program, hopped a plane for Bangkok. “At first, I was a little nervous,” admits Barbour. “I really didn’t know anything and I didn’t know anyone besides Casey. But Thailand was attractive to me because I’d never seen that part of the world. After I got there and learned the numbers and some Thai for bargaining with the street vendors, I kind of figured things out on my own. The weather was also really nice. It was a good break from the snow up here. Once I got used to the place, I really enjoyed it.”
Stelmach had similar apprehensions at first. “I didn’t really know much about it going over,” she says. “I don’t speak Thai, but I tried to learn enough basics to say hello, to count, to order in a restaurant.”
Allowed to choose their own courses, Barbour and Stelmach ended up having a few classes in common, such as computer-aided design and failure mode and effect analysis.
“Some of the classes that Chula offered weren’t offered at Dartmouth, like the failure mode class,” says Barbour. “The class looked at examples of why real-life structures like bridges and buildings failed.”
“It was different adapting to the class structure, it being primarily an exam-based curriculum rather than a project-based curriculum like it is at Thayer,” says Stelmach. “I think I learn better with projects and homework to reinforce that learning.”
“The program is a good way to experience engineering outside of the United States, just to see how it compares to us,” says Barbour. “Besides how the classes are structured, I found that it wasn’t much different. It’s good to know that they’re teaching the same stuff in that part of the world. It’s good to know that if I wanted to get a job outside of the United States in engineering, I’d be okay because I know that we’re basically learning the same concepts.”
Barbour and Stelmach made time to experience life outside the university. They took Thai cooking classes, explored Bangkok, and traveled the country. “We went to a temple that started as a wildlife refuge,” says Barbour. “For two hours during the hottest part of the day, when the tigers are sleeping, you can have your picture taken with them and pet them. It was pretty exciting to pet a huge tiger like that.”
“I learned a lot of engineering and learned a lot outside of engineering,” says Stelmach. “It was great to see a completely different culture than my own and gain some understanding of it. I met some really wonderful people who I still keep in touch with. But I think what I took away most, though, was more of a level of comfort in the world. I’m now able to go into a strange situation, a strange place like Thailand, and thrive.”
IN SEPTEMBER OF 2009, THREE THAI STUDENTS began fall term at Thayer School.
“I feel very excited to be here. It is the best exchange program we had in Thailand,” says Wannaporn Dechpinya.
“I chose to participate in this program because I plan to do my master’s in the United States,” says Chaya Chansmitmas, an information communication engineering major at Chula. “My goal is to use my engineering background and then apply it to business.” The Tuck School of Business factored into his decision. “We all know that Tuck is one of the top business schools in the country. And so I chose the courses that are taught by the Tuck professors, the types of courses I will be taking in business school, such as marketing, optimization, and finance. I want to test myself.”
“I knew that it would be a great thing, to experience living abroad away from family,” says Worapol Ngamcherdtrakul. “You live more independently, get to know more people, get to have roommates. I knew I’d get to learn something new because there are many courses offered here that are not offered at my home university. But the main reason that I chose here is that it is one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.”
The students had to get used to a different academic style at Dartmouth.
“In Thailand, we have a semester system, so we have more time per semester,” says Ngamcherdtrakul. “I do not have as much spare time as I did in Thailand. The courses are pretty intensive, and I have to spend more time on campus, on engineering, and in libraries.”
“One big thing that is different here is that the bulk of my classes are based on class participation,” says Chansmitmas. “In my finance class, class participation counts for 30 percent of the grade. In Thailand the most important thing is to do well in the midterms and the quizzes.”
“In Chula, we don’t have this much homework,” says Dechpinya. “In one of my classes here, the homework is worth 50 percent of your grade. If you don’t practice and do the homework, you will fail. We need to be responsible for ourselves.”
Classes brought other discoveries as well. For example, in ENGS 100: Methods in Applied Mathematics, Dechpinya dispelled stereotypes on both sides of the cultural gap. “All the rumors I’d heard about Americans said that they’re bad at math,” she says. “And this course proves to me that, no, Americans are not bad at math at all. They are all great! And this math is so hard! I used to feel like, ‘Okay, I’m Asian, I am so good in math.’ But no! I’m not that good. The course is very hard to me, but it’s still fun.”
Ngamcherdtrakul likes the scope of his Dartmouth courses, ENGS 35: Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering, ENGS 13: Virtual Medicine and Cybercare, and a biochemistry course. “They fit in well with my bio-nano engineering major. At my home university, my courses focus mainly on biomaterial and biomedical engineering, but here I get introduced to biotechnology, gene cloning, and protein engineering. I get a bigger picture of the field and its applications,” he says.
“I think that the type of class environment here is good,” says Chansmitmas. “For example, the professor in my finance course likes to make cold calls during class. He calls it the Wheel of Fortune. He presses a button and a wheel keeps on rolling. If it stops at your name, you answer the next question. The light is on you, and the whole class is waiting. For the first few classes it was quite intimidating. He’s always asking us, ‘Really?’ and ‘Why?’ We have to defend our answers using all the knowledge we have learned, and not just in textbooks, but in the newspaper, too.”
Chansmitmas says that the whole Thayer community made him feel welcome. Alums gave him career advice, for example. “I’m not a student of Dartmouth but they were willing to help so much,” he says. “They talked to me for a half hour and gave me really great insight. It’s not only alumni who have been friendly, but also the students. The friends and people I’ve met here at Thayer, they know my name, they know my face.”
Dechpinya has similar feelings. “I went on a Dartmouth Outing Club hiking trip and sprained my ankle — and everyone was so very nice to me! The rescue team carried me on their backs. It took three hours to get me off Mount Moosilauke. The people brought me to the hospital, to dinner, and everyone really cared about me. These people were so cool. I mean, why did they have to care about me? I’m just an exchange student who got a sprained ankle because I didn’t wear hiking shoes and I don’t exercise. But no one blamed me at all. I felt very impressed by that.”
The program helped Dechpinya see a lot of things differently. “Being here has taught me that I’m not always the best person at everything,” she says. “Back in Thailand, I’m always at the top of the class. But here, there are people that push my efforts even more to succeed in everything in my life. Before coming here I didn’t know what I would like to be. I just knew that I was good at engineering and calculations. But they have taught me how to picture my future and find the things that I really love to do. I’ve learned from these people a lot.”
— Kathryn LoConte is assistant editor of Dartmouth Engineer.