Exploring China

A Penn State College of Engineering course takes a group of students to China for a month-long experience of the country's culture and historical landmarks through the lens of engineering.

The steep, uneven stones make the journey up China's Great Wall more of an ascent than a leisurely stroll for a group of Penn State students. The weather doesn't offer much encouragement with unusually cool temperatures and breezy conditions. But neither can lessen the enthusiasm of the Penn Staters, who are relishing their visit to this ancient engineering marvel.

The trek is part of the College of Engineering's Impact of Culture on Engineering in China, a course that immerses students in Chinese culture and history and is a tour de force of many of the country's most famous ancient and modern sites. 

A group of Penn State students pose on the Great Wall of China

Penn State students on China's Great Wall

The visit to China's Great Wall proves to be a challenging climb for these Penn State students. The Great Wall of China is an engineering marvel more than 2000 years old. 

Image: Curtis Chan

Offered during Maymester, the three-week period after spring semester and before the start of the first summer six-week session, ENGR 118 is, for many, their first global experience. 

Because it is a 100-level course, it is open to all students, not just those who are in the College of Engineering, said Xinli Wu, assistant professor of engineering and the course's instructor.

"I figured I would never get a chance to get to China on my own and experience it for a month," said Will Haunstein, an aerospace engineering sophomore. "I figured it would be an awesome experience. It's something you can talk about forever." 

Students pose in front of China's Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Students pose in front of Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Penn State students pose for a photo in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, China. The ancient building—a holy place in the Buddhist religion—was originally built in 652. "A structure isn't only a structure," said student Caroline Deakins about what she learned on the trip. "It's the intent, what it does for the people, and how it reflects the culture and the necessity." 

Image: Curtis Chan

"It was a perfect structured way to see all of China."—Lola Buonomo

Mechanical engineering senior Lola Buonomo said, "It sounded like a neat opportunity—I always wanted to see Asia. Reading the itinerary, there was no way I'd have the ability to do all of those things by myself or with friends. It was a perfect structured way to see all of China."

Once they arrive in China, it's a dizzying month for the students. They spend five days in the Chinese capital before heading to the northeast to take in one of the country's newest cities, Dalian. That's followed by a flight to Xian to see the Terracotta Army. From there, a train takes the class to Yichang, where the students visit the Three Gorges Dam. There they board a cruise ship that takes them through the gigantic locks of the Three Gorges. 

Students viewed both old and new Chinese landmarks, from the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Terracotta Army to the Beijing National Stadium and the Hangzhou Bay Bridge.

For five days and four nights, the class cruises along the Yangtze, examining how the dam's construction has changed life along the mighty river. The cruise also offers the Penn Staters a much-needed respite from the course's breakneck pace.

At the cruise's terminus in Chongqing, students spend two nights in the city before spending four days in Huangshan and finishing in Shanghai. 

Engineering Landmarks

Over the past six years, Wu has taken a cohort of more than two dozen students each year to China during Maymester. 

Students on Shanghai waterfront

Penn State students in front of Shanghai's skyline

Students James Futrell, left, Kate Waskiw, Caroline Deakins, Lola Buonomo and Will Haunstein show off their THON pride at the Bund, Shanghai’s famed riverfront area. Shanghai was the final stop on the tour's busy itinerary.

Image: Curtis Chan

Once there, the students are exposed to a mix of the old and new. The class takes in nearly all of the must-see ancient Chinese landmarks, including the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and Terracotta Army.

But a large portion of the journey is devoted to the new China as well, including the Three Gorges Dam; the famed "Bird's Nest" Beijing National Stadium and "Water Cube" National Aquatics Center from the 2008 Summer Olympics; high-speed trains; and the 22-mile-long Hangzhou Bay Bridge, the world's second longest bay bridge. 

"I learned how engineers here made the impossible possible here in China while keeping in their culture."—Paul Perreault

For students, it's a fascinating study of the past and future and how ambitious engineering projects have always been a part of the country's DNA.

"I learned how engineers here made the impossible possible here in China while keeping in their culture," said engineering sophomore Paul Perreault. 

Caroline Deakins, an engineering sophomore, added, "A structure isn't only a structure. It's the intent, what it does for the people, and how it reflects the culture and the necessity." 

That's one of the key lessons of the class, Wu said. And though it's a rare experience to hike up the steep, uneven cobble steps of the Great Wall or sail through the massive staircase locks of the Three Gorges Dam, the class goes beyond engineering, he said.

"Because of globalization, many companies value potential employees with global experience."—Xinli Wu

"It's about globalization," Wu stated. He explained that a class taught in the United States could competently cover the ins and outs of designing and building something like the Great Wall or Three Gorges Dam, but nothing can really match lessons learned first-hand overseas. 

Becoming Global Citizens

"In China, the students learn about cultural etiquette such as table manners," Wu said. Though that may sound silly on the surface, "eating culture is a big deal in China. A lot of business is negotiated over dinner. If you don't do things right, you may have an awkward moment." 

For example, accepting a business card in China is a small ritual. The recipient, Wu said, must accept the card with two hands and thank the giver. To take a business card with one hand and slip it into a pocket is considered disrespectful. 

"[G]oing on this trip has really taught me the culture of China, getting a first-hand experience with going to dinners, meeting people, experiencing how to do things correctly, who sits where, how to accept business cards—everything."—Connor Leavitt

"It's very hard to sit in a classroom environment and teach these cultural elements," Wu said. 

As part of the trip, the students are required to bring formal attire for dinners with Chinese CEOs so they may practice their newly acquired etiquette. 

"Learning by seeing and doing makes it very hard to forget," Wu said. "Because of globalization, many companies value potential employees with global experience. 

Student learns Chinese calligraphy

Penn State student receives a hands-on lesson in calligraphy

James Futrell gets a lesson in calligraphy from a Chinese student during the class’s visit with the students and faculty at China University of Mining and Technology in Beijing. Learning about the Chinese culture was one of the most important parts of the trip. "Learning by seeing and doing makes it very hard to forget," said Xinli Wu, assistant professor of engineering and the course's instructor. 

Image: Curtis Chan

Connor Leavitt, an industrial engineering sophomore, agreed. "It's one thing to see all of these great engineering accomplishments like the Great Wall, Three Gorges Dam, Terracotta Warriors. Anyone can see that. But going on this trip has really taught me the culture of China, getting a first-hand experience with going to dinners, meeting people, experiencing how to do things correctly, who sits where, how to accept business cards—everything." 

For a majority of the students, the course changed not only their outlook on the world, but also how they viewed themselves. 

"I feel like I learned a lot, not just about engineering and Chinese culture, but about myself."—Caroline Deakins

"I feel like I learned a lot, not just about engineering and Chinese culture, but about myself. I became more independent," Deakins said. "I might not remember all the history or how long it took for something to be built or what dynasty things happened, but I really liked the simple moments in China, like when you reached for the dumplings and everyone's having trouble grabbing it and you successfully grab it with chopsticks the first time, or when you barter with someone to get a necklace from 90 Yuan down to ten, or when you're walking down the street and you lose yourself in the culture and your surroundings. Those were my favorites." 

The sophomore continued, "You had moments where it hit you—'Oh my gosh, I'm in China.' You want to try to take it all in." 

About ENGR 118 Impact of Culture on Engineering in China

The ENGR 118 Impact of Culture on Engineering in China program is a month-long program designed to provide students with an overview of the impact of culture on engineering and engineering design and manufacturing in China. 

The Chinese economy has a major impact on the economies of other countries; this course also aims to help students understand some of the current challenges of globalization. The class can be used to satisfy students' international cultures or social and behavioral sciences degree. 

To find out more information or to apply for the program, visit https://gpglobalea.gp.psu.edu/index.cfm?FuseAction=Programs.ViewProgram&Program_ID=10030. More on the class can be found on the course's blog at http://sites.psu.edu/China.