Science Study Abroad
The Whys and the Why Nots

Preetha Ram, Assistant Dean for Science,
Office for Undergraduate Education, Emory College

Vol. 8 No. 3
December 2005/January 2006

Return to Contents

Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization

Comparing Libraries

Copyright foul or access fair?

"You can never let up on the acquisition of printed materials. Print is fundamental to the humanities, and the visual images are far better than anything yet available through an electronic purveyor. "

"The pressure is on from our scholarly communities, who for certain tasks want print, but for convenience, access, and other reasons want electronic."

Reading Reading Lolita
Memory, memoir, and history

Ethics and Incompetence
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Science Study Abroad
The Whys and Why Nots



One of the editors of the Emory Wheel challenged me: “Do we really need science study abroad programs? There are so many study abroad programs already. What’s the benefit of special programs for the sciences?” Consider for a moment the state of science today and ponder the implications this has on the education we ought to offer our students in a liberal arts setting.

Science has become a truly international endeavor. Seventeen percent of graduate students enrolled in this country were foreign citizens in 2001. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census show that in science and engineering occupations, 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees holders, 29 percent of master’s degree holders, and 38 percent of doctorate holders are foreign born. In 2001, 70 percent of all worldwide scientific papers were of non-U.S. origin, and nearly 40 percent of scientific papers published worldwide had at least one U.S.-based researcher among their authors. Scientific discoveries are often communicated at meetings in international locations to an international audience.

Future scientists will have to collaborate to solve problems that have no geographical boundaries—the greenhouse effect, genetically modified foods, arsenic in groundwater, and so forth. To succeed and lead, our scientists need to understand different cultures and communicate across cultural boundaries with respect and tolerance. We cannot provide our students a world-class science education if we ignore the internationalization of science.

There is overwhelming support from educators, educational
institutions, and educational organizations for incorporating international experiences into the undergraduate curriculum. According to the American Council on Education, “Unless today’s students develop the competence to function effectively in a global environment, they are unlikely to succeed in the twenty-first century.” The National Science Foundation states in its program solicitations that it “recognizes the importance of enabling U.S. researchers and educators to advance their work through international collaboration, and of helping to ensure that future generations of U.S. scientists and engineers gain professional experience beyond this nation’s borders early in their careers.” Professionals in a global economy will need cross-cultural skills to succeed. Study abroad experiences foster leadership, language acquisition, and the ability to work in multicultural teams. Young scientists will also benefit in their careers from these early international relationships and collaborations.

As many freshmen will confess, large introductory science classes do little to motivate them or engage them. But when students encounter science in a real world-context, their interest is piqued; they can relate science to their own experiences and thus are more inclined to comprehend and retain concepts and reach key goals of their teachers. For example, students studying at the University of Siena, Italy, can participate in the harvest at the Baron Ricasoli Chianti vineyards, study Italian, and conduct chemical analysis of wines. Research interests of scientists at the University of Siena revolve around prominent regional topics such as archeological artifacts, wine analysis, crystal making, paints, pigments, and olive oil. Field trips to the vineyard or the glass factory bring their studies to life, enriching their experiences and strengthening connections between the course material and Italian culture. A new program in Australia jointly developed by biology and environmental studies engages students in coastal ecology and the evolution of invasive species, thereby linking students to unique cultural contexts of another society.

Emory has identified globalization and international studies as
an area of critical growth and as a strategic initiative. For many, the college experience is incomplete without study abroad. Each year Emory sponsors fifteen to twenty faculty-led summer programs in approximately seventy locations around the globe. In 2002, 671 students participated in international programs yielding a participation rate of 37.8 percent. Despite the large percentage of students participating in study abroad experience, the percent of study abroad students who are science majors remains disappointingly low, at about 14 percent. The situation at Emory is representative of many campuses and programs.

Several reasons contribute to this low participation among science majors. At Emory, as at other schools, a high proportion of
science students are on a pre-medical or pre-health track and have to enroll in sequential courses. Quite often, science majors must assume the highest course loads of any in the college. Science students
sometimes respond to the urgency to finish their major requirements by taking science courses during summer—the time when many internships, external research, and study abroad programs occur. From the faculty’s perspective, the quality of courses taken in foreign institutions needs to be carefully evaluated to allay fears that students who study abroad will not be prepared to continue coursework at the appropriate level when they return to classes on the home campus.

One strategy to address the issue of low participation is to design programs that specifically address some of these issues. In the Chemistry Studies in Siena program, the two summer courses offered count towards the chemistry major. In fact, a student on a premed track can actually complete the requirements for a chemistry major by taking just two more courses. In the neuroscience and behavioural biology program in St. Andrews, Scotland, students can even complete a master’s degree. Another is to offer research opportunities in international labs and thereby combine both a high-quality research experience with international immersion. Collaboration between the Center for Programs Abroad, Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory, the Emory Center for Science Education, and my office have led to the development of international research networks and funding for student participation in research abroad.

When students meet and mingle with students and faculty from international institutions, they find themselves immersed in the culture of the land. In conversations with their undergraduate counterparts or graduate students in research labs they visit, students learn to recognize differences and appreciate their commonalities. Our programs therefore embody the liberal arts tradition as we show our students how science relates to literature, religion, art, ethics, and many other expressions of the human spirit, how science is part of civilization and of life—shaping it and being shaped by it.