A worldly engineering program

Twenty-five years ago, the University launched a novel experiment: combine engineering and foreign language education to produce graduates with the skills and confidence to compete globally.

Now, with students interning and studying in six countries – and nearly all graduates landing jobs – the experiment has proved a remarkable success.

The International Engineering Program counts more than 350 graduates, spread around the world working for engineering titans including BMW, the Dow Chemical Co., Johnson & Johnson and more.

It’s a far cry from when the program started in 1987 with just 30 or so students recruited by John Grandin, then a German professor.

At the time, Grandin saw industry leaders increasingly becoming globalized, and a need for graduates to hold foreign language and technical skills. He dreamed of a program to mesh the two worlds and found support from his neighbor – the new engineering dean.

Together, Grandin and Dean Hermann Viets laid the foundation for the International Engineering Program. The U.S. Department of Education – calling the program innovative – provided a grant to kick start the initiative.

“I felt engineering students were the least likely to be learning a foreign language and studying or interning abroad, but most likely to need it and Hermann felt the same way,” Grandin says.

The program started by offering engineering students specialized German language courses. It soon formalized into a five-year program that graduates students with two degrees: one in an engineering discipline and another in German, French, Spanish or Chinese.

Students today also live together in two houses or living-learning communities, where conversations occur in a foreign language as often as in English.

Grandin “put something on the map that will be there for a long, long, long time,” says Viets, now president of the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Recognition for the program has come from all over the map.The program has been recognized by the German government and received a Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award for internationalization of the campus through an innovative engineering curriculum.

In March, the Institute of International Education honored the program with its prestigious Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education. The organization hailed the program as “a model for engineering and language educators across the country.”

With that on her mind, Sigrid Berka, who took Grandin’s position in 2010, is laying out plans to grow the International Engineering Program.

She recently worked with the German railway company Deutsche Bahn to expand corporate funding for the IEP as well as international workshops and internship opportunities. She and her team are exploring adding Arabic or Portuguese to the program. Arabic would likely arrive as part of a new Islamic studies cluster at the University focused on readying students to respond to the rising importance of the Middle East. Portuguese would train engineers to work in booming Brazil and other Latin America countries.

The program is also reaching out to high schools around the world in an effort to recruit students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

“It was easy for me to step in here in a way because John had laid all the groundwork, but it needs to continue,” Berka says. “There’s always more to be done. You can always build.”