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Global Engineering: Spanish Style

Observations from USC Engineering Undergraduates

October 27, 2003 — “I extended the power plug toward the outlet in the wall and slowly slipped it in. Click. A surge of electricity rushed up my hand and flowed through my arm. My hand vibrated momentarily as 220 volts of electric current pulsated through it. I reflexively let go and stared at the power plug in disbelief. The once white plug was now charred black and an accompanying smell of burnt plastic emanated from it. My intuition had somehow managed to overlook the US / Europe voltage difference, and my trusty digital alarm clock suffered as a result. This was the first of many culture “shocks” that I experienced during my six-week enrollment at the USC Engineering Summer Overseas Program in Madrid.”

Ammar Chinoy is a junior at USC majoring in Computer Science. He is an international student from Pakistan.


“Throughout the six weeks, I was able to discuss aqueduct architecture with a native of Segovia, raise doubts about the supposed remains of Christopher Columbus at the Cathedral in Seville, have an interesting conversion with a local professional about the aeronautical industry in Spain, and bargain with local vendors. Engineering today is not just based on science and mathematics. It is a much more diverse and well-rounded field that requires genuine cultural understanding.”

Gustavo is in his third year majoring in Aerospace Engineering. His post-graduate plans include pursuing a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering at USC, and working for a Los Angeles-based aerospace company.

“Upon arriving in Spain, I was set up in a small apartment with two of my classmates. As we made a first inspection of our new home, we quickly began to realize that we were completely baffled by the majority of our appliances. Even after half an hour with a Spanish-English dictionary, we remained mystified by the different cycles of our washing machine. Knobs weren’t where we were used to, and we argued for ten minutes whether pushing a button in turned the ‘econo-cycle’ on, or off. It was then that we realized just how tough of a time we would have. However, the longer we spent in Spain, the more adept we became at figuring out not just the country’s appliances, but the way things work in general. What I began to understand was that every culture has it’s own unspoken rules and standards for how things should work. These rules are the reason why your hand may go straight for the proper button on a radio of a car you have never been in, or are able to use a computer program you have never seen. This ‘cultural intuition’ can be found in every culture, and is the result of the unique experiences of every day life in a particular society. These are the rules that govern how our world is engineered, and I had never before realized how culture specific these rules could be. Whether a knob should turn clockwise, or counterclockwise, or which light switches should be timed or not are not things one can learn in a classroom. These small cultural nuances need to be felt and experienced in order to be understood, and it should go without saying that they need to be understood before they can be applied.”

Rand Voorhies is a sophomore computer engineering student from New Orleans, La. He enjoys playing music, and doing a few other non-engineering types of activities. He hopes to one day be his own boss.

“I develop as an engineer in the classroom everyday at USC from fall until spring. While learning in those settings will leave me prepared and extremely qualified for the engineering-related problems I might encounter in the future, that is not all of the preparation that matters. The Engineering Overseas Program gave me an opportunity to shake myself free of all comfortable boundaries, place myself in the middle of unfamiliar territory, and undergo personal development as I gathered experiences that I will not soon forget. I would not know any reference point to judge culture, experiences, and life against had I always remained within my own society.”

Jeff Dralla is a junior majoring in Electrical Engineering while also seeking a sailing vessel Captain’s license at USC. Jeff fills his little free time with his passion of following Formula One racing, playing on USC’s ice hockey team, and cooking gourmet food.

“The importance of engineers respecting and understanding other cultures tends to be overlooked not only by engineers themselves but society as well. Therefore, an abroad program creates an environment not normally included in an engineer's education and leads to the development of a more well rounded individual. The world is growing smaller and causing more cross-cultural contact in everyday life, especially in the technological and business sectors. Companies from different countries are now participating in joint projects that require communication between at least two different cultures with their own languages and engineering practices. In order for engineers to be able to work smoothly in such situations, they would need to have developed skills in dealing with other cultures.

“What intrigued me the most, being an electrical engineer, was how energy efficient all the appliances and light fixtures were. For example, every light within the common areas of my apartment complex was timed and sensored. Such practices of efficiency are due to the fact that electricity is much more expensive for Spaniards than for Americans, thus requiring engineers to design products that compensate for the increased prices. The constant technical questions that were asked by students during the trip were also due to the emphasis of the program's classes on topics relating to each individual's respective engineering major.”

Melissa Lorenzen is a junior majoring in electrical engineering and a member of the Pi Beta Phi Sorority. She participated in the Madrid program this past summer and hopes to one day retire in Europe


“As an environmental engineering major, I found the attitude of Madrileños, and Europeans in general, towards efficiency and conservation to be very interesting. The entire city of Madrid has been designed to save energy and increase efficiency wherever it is possible. For example, lights in hallways and other common areas in building are set to timers so that lights are not left on to waste electricity.”

Jennifer McLean is majoring in environmental engineering, and is currently in her last year at USC.

“While these experiences will help us become global engineers, equally important were the marvels of chemical, structural, and electrical engineering in Spain. Everything from light switches with automatic shut-offs to non-refrigerated milk to aqueducts has been designed to save as much energy as possible. These models of efficiency have left lasting impressions and will make us all better engineers because we have seen what the rest of the world is doing about the same problems that face us in the United States.”

Fima Macheret is a sophomore Chemical Engineering major from Cincinnati, OH. He is fluent in Spanish and Russian, enjoys a game of tennis or volleyball, and prefers no-pulp orange juice.

“One of my favorite experiences was on a train between Madrid and Barcelona. I stayed up all night with five Spaniards discussing the differences and similarities between the cultures of Spain and the United States. We compared everything from food to politics, and I learned much from the way they thought and acted.”

Jonathan Watkins is a junior majoring in electrical engineering and pursuing a minor in music recording. He enjoys studying a variety of musical styles and plays the electric bass.

“Students gained a unique understanding of Spanish culture while living and studying in Madrid. Through this program students visited famous art museums, like the Prado and the Reina Sofia, tried traditional Spanish cuisine, like tapas and paella, and saw traditional Spanish entertainment, like flamenco and zarzuela. These new experiences that came with the new culture, such as figuring out how to interpret the symbols on washing machines, ordering fruit in terms of kilos, and handling impatient waiters, removed students from their comfort zones and familiar routines. The new situations I experienced during this program have left me with more confidence in my ability to be self-sufficient and handle unfamiliar situations.”

Veronica Loete is a senior majoring in Environmental Engineering. She is from Reno, Nevada and is currently the President of USC’s student section of the Society of Women Engineers.

“At first, I couldn’t understand what was going on. We had asked the man at the store for some milk, but instead of the large plastic container that we expected he just handed us a box. It wasn’t even refrigerated. We looked at it for a while. It looked like an oversized box of juice that we might have had when we were kids. Finally, when we decided that it really was milk, we paid the man and brought the box home. The next day we learned that, in order to conserve power, milk in Spain comes in special aseptic boxes that don’t have to be refrigerated. The European movement towards conservation is just one of the practical things that, as engineers, we were exposed to during the USC engineering summer abroad program. Future engineers learning about foreign issues is just one of the reasons why this program is such a successful one.”

Nels Beckman is a junior computer science major at the University of Southern California. His interests include playing guitar and reading novels as well as making silkscreen T-shirts. He hopes to continue studying computer science after college and would like to one day acquire a Ph.D. in the field.

“Engineering is a “global profession” and, ultimately, a means of serving humanity. While studying and traveling in Spain, we were able to recognize and appreciate the significance that engineering has had on the country’s many landmarks. While on our visit to Segovia, we saw how advanced engineering had been in Europe 2,000 years ago. Those engineers were able to successfully construct an enormous aqueduct to transport water to the city. In Grenada, we discussed the engineering behind the many fountains in the beautiful gardens of the Alhambra. Seeing the prevalence of engineering in all aspects of Spanish culture we were able to make that global connection between our lives in America with the lives of those in another country.”

Krupa Savalia, originally from West Orange, New Jersey, is a sophomore at the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering. She is an honors student studying Biomedical/Biochemical Engineering with a pre-medicine emphasis.

“Studying abroad in Spain has been a rich, cultural experience that has encompassed all aspects of academics, history, art, architecture, food and entertainment. I experienced rigorous schoolwork, enlightening museums, ancient castles and churches, flamenco dancing and bull fighting, taxi cabs, metro stops and sturdy walking shoes, daily trips to the local fruit, fish and meat stands, salami and provolone sandwiches for lunch followed by decadent flan for dessert. Studying abroad has not only been the experience of living in another country, taking a few classes, shooting six rolls of film and squeezing in three museum visits in one day, it has been about the challenges faced once completely immersed in another culture. Studying abroad is all about the frustration of miscommunication, it is about the need to play charades when attempting to buy nail polish remover, it is about pointing at fruit you don’t know the name of, it is about the 4 AM study craze and the six hours of sleeping time on a good night.”

Christine Keushguerian is a senior Environmental Engineering student at USC. She enjoys long walks on the beach, reading romance novels, singing in the shower and one day hopes to be the lead singer in a country music band.

“Despite the accelerated class schedule, the study abroad program allowed for great relationship building between the students and faculty. The professors teaching these classes were also from USC and going through all the same experiences that we students were. We fought through the same language and custom barriers, went on the same trips, and participated in the same outside-the-classroom activities. Couple these experiences with the increased time in the classroom together and it is easy to see how this program could allow for building better student-faculty relationships.”

Jason Chan is a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. He photographs sports for the Daily Trojan, lifts weights and plans on attending law school upon completing his engineering degree.