Andrew M. (Mike) Erdman
Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development
213E Hammond Building
University Park, PA 16802
Mondialogo: An intercultural dialogue and exchange
Penn State and Moroccan students collaborate on international engineering project
Eighteen Penn State students and thirteen Moroccan students from École Mohammadia d’Ingénieurs came together in spring 2009 to form “Team Amerocco,” an international group of students with a passion for cultural exchanges and a drive to improve the world though engineering.
Eleven of the Penn State students were from the Engineering Leadership Development Minor (ELDM) capstone class, ENGR 497 Leadership, Innovation, and 21st Century Resource Challenges, taught by Assistant Professor Richard Schuhmann, director of the ELDM, and seven students from Engineers for a Sustainable World assisted the ELDM students with background literature research. The ELDM students collaborated with the Moroccans as part of the Mondialogo program, an initiative sponsored by Daimler and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to promote intercultural dialogue and exchange.
In the Mondialogo program, students from universities around the world collaborate and communicate with other universities on a team project through the Mondialogo online community (www.mondialogo.com). These international teams compete for the Mondialogo Engineering Award, which is given to those participants who best achieve the organization’s goal of promoting intercultural dialogue and cooperation between educational engineering institutions in developing and developed countries.
Team Amerocco explored stove designs for their Mondialogo project. According to the team’s project abstract, the World Health Organization estimates that more than three billion people around the world use solid fuels for their energy needs, which oftentimes produces indoor air pollution. This pollution, which ranges from carbon monoxide to particulate matter, is the cause of nearly three percent of global diseases.
Recognizing the need for clean and safe fuel burning in rural areas of Morocco, the team set out to create an efficient, solid-fuel-burning stove design, while also taking cultural implications into account.
For the first part of the semester, the American and Moroccan students shared ideas over the online Mondialogo platform, which is equipped with message boards and chat features. The two groups also communicated through Skype, an Internet-based videoconferencing, phone, and chat service, and through the College’s Polycom system.
Over their spring break, the eleven Penn State ELDM students traveled to the capital city of Rabat to meet their Moroccan counterparts. Team Amerocco spent one week together traveling to remote areas of the Moroccan countryside to assess the viability of their ideas—in both a functional and cultural context—and to refine their stove designs.
These “field challenges,” designed to help the students get a broader picture of the disadvantages of the existing stoves, proved to be much more than an engineering exercise. These day-long excursions gave the Americans and Moroccans a chance to bond and learn about each other’s cultures.
“Morocco is incredibly different from the United States, but we made some very close friends and learned so much about each other and each other’s cultures,” said Matt Yeamans, a May 2009 mechanical engineering graduate with minors in ELDM and engineering mechanics. “We asked some really personal questions about their way of life and had a great open dialogue about all aspects of their way of life and ours.”
In preparation for their immersion into an Arab culture, the Penn State students learned about Islam and studied Darija, the spoken Arabic language in Morocco. The course also prepared them to talk about their own beliefs and political views, which required some introspection on the part of the students.
“We were prepared before we went there to expect to be asked certain kinds of questions,” said Gopal Nadadur, a mechanical engineering graduate student. “We were told to be really comfortable with our religious beliefs and to be prepared to talk about what you believe and why you believe in it. So we really had to learn our own religions and our own cultures well before we went there. We did a self analysis.”
While in Morocco, the students discovered a different representation of Islam than that which is often negatively portrayed in American media.
“Undoubtedly, the most interesting thing I took away from the Moroccan culture is their devout following of the Islamic religion,” said Mike Ducker, a May 2009 mechanical engineering and ELDM graduate. “Nearly all of the Moroccans we met were Muslim and deeply dedicated themselves to the religion. It was an experience in itself simply learning more, hands on, about the Islamic religion, its background, and its people.”
“At the root of this religion is hospitality and kindness toward strangers, and all the Americans certainly experienced these aspects exhibited by the Moroccan students and other Moroccans we met along the way, helping to make the experience for us even better overall.”
During their stay in Morocco, the Penn State students lived in the Old City with Moroccan host families, many of which spoke very little English. The students ate with, socialized with, and even learned new bathing techniques from their host families.
“Visiting hamam with my host family in Rabat was literally getting dunked into a pool of culture,” said Steve Garguilo, a May 2009 information sciences and technology and ELDM graduate, about his visit to the hamam, a public bathing facility that is much like a wet version of a sauna.
“You had to scrub yourself with oil and soaps and soak in the steam,” said Nadadur, who shared the same host family as Garguilo. “The showers that I take these days are like—I’m not really clean after this!”
In addition to the engineering and cultural exchanges, the students gained something of perhaps even greater value to their lives: friendships. After spending an entire week together, the students became very close.
“My favorite part of Mondialago was having the opportunity to meet and really get to know our peers at École Mohammadia d’Ingénieurs,” said Garguilo. “Getting the chance to live and work with people from the Moroccan culture gave me wonderful new insights and enabled me to make new friends for life.”
Through the Mondialogo project, the Engineering Leadership Development Minor continues its commitment to global engineering initiatives, promoting cultural education, and preparing students for careers in the global marketplace.
“The knowledge and experience gained through this project will be continually applied throughout the rest of my career and the rest of my life,” said Garguilo. “Knowing that people have different world views and different experiences is so important when working on global teams, and understanding how to best work in these situations to effectively leverage talent and diversity is also very important.”
“I will always think back to my wonderful experiences in Morocco when I commence work on global teams. I hope to continue this type of work and especially travel for the rest of my life.”