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STEM Students Study Abroad for Social Good

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Leadership & Transparency
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By David F. Fougere

This graduation season, while enjoying the commencement speeches full of inspirational words for students heading out into the world, ready to make it a better place, let’s consider this heartening fact: There’s a good chance they’ll make good on their promises. Forty percent of bachelor's degrees earned by men and 29 percent earned by women are now in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to the National Student Clearinghouse. These are the innovators – the engineers, scientists and researchers – who will solve the world’s problems and lead us into the future.

Hard sciences as curricula for triple-bottom-line career paths? Absolutely.

At its highest level, the STEM philosophy is about improving quality of life and the health of the planet. This is a mantle that’s perfect for Generation Z, a cohort encompassing today’s high school and college students that is increasingly passionate about the needs of the developing world. With STEM degrees in hand, these soon-to-be professionals hold the knowledge and technologies needed to solve real-world problems and improve standards of living -- not just in the United States, but also around the world.

More than 7 billion people around the world rely on STEM to solve rapidly increasing problems related to climate change, contamination, and food and water shortages. Combating these global issues requires the ability to see from multiple perspectives and the skills to bridge cultural divides.

As early as grade school, students are learning about the international nature of STEM efforts, from global warming to sustainability, and about the destinations far beyond U.S. borders that are leading the way. Take renewable energy: Denmark leads in wind power, Iceland in geothermal energy, Germany in sustainable architecture, Japan in solar, Costa Rica in hydroelectric power, Africa in rural water management and irrigation – the list goes on and on.

What it all comes down to is the fact that, to be cutting-edge or even just competitive, STEM works best with an international understanding of research and how to apply technologies and ideas within a cultural framework to make them most effective.

Increasingly, college and high school students are discovering that the best way to gain this critical international understanding while honing their skills in their chosen field is to combine their STEM curriculum with study abroad.

Take a look at a few examples. STEM students today can study conservation and marine biology in the island nation of Bonaire, home to one of the Earth’s most diverse and pristine marine habitats. But make no mistake; this is no beach vacation. Students on a tropical marine ecology and conservation program go on 35 scientific dives as part of their coursework. They collaborate on research projects with the Bonaire National Marine Park and other institutions, then present their findings to the public. Students even submit their findings to the student scientific journal, Physis: Journal of Marine Science. All this while immersing themselves in the local culture and deepening their appreciation for the impact their work can have.

Alternatively, engineering students might opt to spend a semester in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Home to incredible engineering feats, like the Burj Khalifa (the tallest tower in the world) and Palm Jumeirah (a man-made, palm tree-shaped archipelago), the UAE is the perfect place to learn about engineering, the Arab world and the global economy. There, students refine their Arabic language skills, and witness the daily intersection of traditional values and modern realities firsthand. They also go on excursions that illuminate their understanding of the region, alter their perspective of the world and match experiential learning with coursework.

The bottom line: STEM students with study abroad experience have more than just a résumé advantage or proof of their depth and commitment to the global community. They also carry a new view of intercultural cooperation and innovation that will allow them to make good on the promises in their commencement addresses.

Image credit: CIEE Study Abroad

David F. Fougere is executive vice president of Study Abroad for CIEE: Council on International Educational Exchange, the nation’s oldest and largest study abroad and cultural exchange organization.

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