Faculty at Duke University created a 6-week summer study abroad program in Costa Rica to allow more biomedical engineers to reap the benefits of study abroad programs. Students could take one of two technical, required engineering courses, either BME 271A: Signals and Systems or Math 353A: Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, taught by faculty from the university, as well as a Costa Rican culture class where students could enhance their Spanish speaking abilities and visit local Costa Rican cultural treasures. Through this program, nearly 10% of our engineers were able to participate in a study abroad experience while satisfying their course requirements.
The benefits of study abroad are well known: students improve their language fluency, their cultural understanding, and living in another country greatly enhances their ethno-empathy, that is the ability to put themselves in the shoes of someone from another culture. Despite the well-known benefits, very few of our biomedical engineers participated in study abroad prior to this program. The 3 main reasons cited include 1) inability to find courses that receive transfer credit, 2) an overly constrained engineering curriculum, and 3) many program have prerequisite requirements such as language requirements that our engineers cannot satisfy. In this context, our university created a program for students at all levels of Spanish fluency, where students would take either a biomedical engineering course or a math course.
The two technical courses offered were BME ###: Signals and Systems and Math ###: Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations. Both courses are required for biomedical engineers, while the math course is required for all engineers. As part of the program, the students were also required to enroll in a Spanish culture class, which would count for one of their Social Science and Humanities requirements.
As part of the BME course, students traveled to MonteVerde, a cloud forest preserve located in the mountains of Costa Rica where they measured the natural frequency of a selection of hanging bridges using accelerometers. Using that data, they then modeled the bridges as second-order, linear differential equations. In addition, the students walked the cloud forests with a naturalist and recorded bird signals. Using their knowledge gained from the course materials such as Fourier Transforms, correlations, and spectrograms, students wrote code that automatically identified birds.
The technical courses were taught for six weeks, Monday through Thursdays for three hours each day, creating a challenge to both cover the content of the course and keep the students engaged with the material despite the fast paced, already difficult material. In order to keep the students attentive in the BME course, every other day the course had students complete computer labs instead of lectures, allowing the students to experience the material with their TA and professor present. These few adjustments, as well as the addition of the several technical field trips, created a very engaging course that was relevant to both engineering and the Costa Rican environment.
The Pratt in Costa Rica program has completed 2 years of study abroad and the interest in the program has grown. The first year, the program had 20 students participate and the second year our program had 26 students in total. Students expressed a high degree of satisfaction with both courses, as well as with the Spanish culture course that all students were enrolled in. This summer study abroad program has been a valuable and popular addition to the study abroad options for our university and the biomedical engineering department, offering our engineering students a way to experience study abroad that fits with their needs and increases the flexibility of our program.
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