Report on 'The Incorporation of Inter-cultural Perspectives and Pedagogy in Specific Disciplines'

for The Minister for Education, The Government of South Australia, December 2000


Incorporation of Inter-cultural Perspectives and Pedagogy in Engineering Degree Programs in

Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Computer Systems Engineering, and Information Technology and Telecommunications


Cheng-Chew Lim

Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

The University of Adelaide



1  General Background


The University of Adelaide has a long tradition of internationalisation. Over the past decades the University has established research, educational and cultural links with many institutions globally, and graduates of the University have served in many countries. Internationalisation of the curriculum at Adelaide University continues to evolve in response to the changing environment in culture, technology and business.


In recent years, the University has experienced a rapid increase in the number of international students, particularly as a result of a twinning program with Malaysia. In the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE), where we have a large population of international engineering students, the twinning program comprises two years of study by international students in Malaysia with local staff presenting lectures, and marking of assignments and exams provided by Adelaide University. The last two years of study are spent in Adelaide University.


Nationally, the demand for engineers in information technology, telecommunications, computer systems and electronics continues to be very high. It is the nature of the engineering profession to work in projects that involve not only Australia but also other countries. This has resulted in numerous changes in engineering departments, including additional demand for places, growth of the female student population, increased diversity in the cultural and ethical backgrounds of students, and the development of a series of new double degrees with other disciplines.


In the Department of EEE, where three engineering degrees are offered, viz electrical and electronic, computer systems, and information technology and telecommunications, there is a steady incorporation of inter-cultural perspectives and pedagogy. Within the structure of the curriculum both culturally and gender inclusive components have been introduced. A number of initiatives have been undertaken in this area at the faculty level and at the departmental level. In this case study, we will discuss the objectives and strategy for their attainment, as well as analyse and evaluate some of our implementations.


Definition of Strategy


2.1  Key Objectives

The Department of EEE has long recognised the value of effective communication skills. The increasingly global nature of today's marketplace requires engineers to work with people from a variety of backgrounds. It is the aim of the Department to cultivate in students the sensitivity and social awareness necessary for building good working relations regardless of differences in culture, religion or gender. At Adelaide University, the diversity of the student population provides many opportunities for students to learn about other cultures. For international students who are new to this country, the transition can be difficult due to a lack of cultural understanding. A key objective of the Department is to maintain a conducive learning and teaching environment for all students and staff by ensuring that misunderstandings arising from ignorance are minimised. Support is also provided for students who are members of minority groups.



2.2  Environment  for Teaching and Learning

Cultural awareness. With the increase in the diversity of students, it is essential for teaching and general staff members to be made aware of cultural and gender differences within the curriculum of the course as well as through everyday interaction. Forums and workshops have been found to be effective for staff members to exchange experiences.


Two examples are Inclusive Curriculum, held in 1999, and Equity and Curriculum, held in 2000, by the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences. Lessons learnt were incorporated into the curriculum. One recent example is the grouping of students. It is recognised that when grouping students for team work, gender must be one factor to consider. It is now a practice in some engineering departments when grouping junior year students in groups of four or more, two female students will be in the group. It should be noted that in engineering, only 20% of the students are female.


Curriculum development. On developing course curricula to cater for a rapidly changing world, it appears that a broad-based engineering education with inclusivity is well-suited to guide students in their development as life-long learners. This is particularly important in engineering, where the convergence of technologies, business, and cultures with international cooperation is now a common practice. Subjects that provide a basic understanding of business practices, laws, ethics, and internationalisation have been incorporated. This concept of broad-based study is further extended by a series of combined degrees with economics, law, finance, or arts, which have been introduced within the last two years.


Learning diversity. Training students to work in a team and to be comfortable with diversity is part of cultural diversity education. Starting in the earlier part of the course and continuing thereafter appear to work well. Ideas of inclusivity and diversity in the context of team work and participation are introduced to all first year engineering students at Adelaide University. A workshop for all first year engineering students was conducted during their orientation week. Team activities and inclusivity are further developed through subjects such as "Engineering and Society", "Engineering Planning and Design", "Professional Engineering Skills", "Project Managements and Systems" and "Project Work".


Language. To assist students from non-English speaking background, the Department has offered a subject "Engineering Communication ESL" as an elective in the curriculum to provide a way to improve communication and language skills. The subject is conducted by ACUE (Advisory Centre for University Education) of the University. It is quite a popular subject among international students. Indeed, this subject was derived after a study conducted by the Department of EEE in collaboration with the Equal Opportunity Office of the University.


2.3  Support for Students

Peer support. A peer adviser system is provided by the Faculty. A senior engineering student acts as a mentor to every new international student. With the guidance and advice of the mentor it is hoped that the anxiety and uncertainty faced by a newcomer to this country will be lessened. A new student may feel apprehensive about approaching staff members for help. The mentor is able to bridge this potential problem by helping to initiate the first contact. The scheme has been shown to work well. Strong friendships have been forged among students from different cultural backgrounds through the peer adviser system.


Departmental support. Support at the departmental level is important as engineering degrees are usually based on a single department.


At a departmental level, a forum on studying and living as a student of a different cultural background in Adelaide was conducted when the new student arrived. The departmental international student liaison officer offered advice on university services that are available to the students. This forum was conducted in an informal and relaxed atmosphere with the view of encouraging students to participate in the discussion. This is an important aspect, as most students from different cultural backgrounds tend not to be outspoken, and will only speak when invited.


To maintain a conducive environment, students who are believed to have encountered difficulties due to insensitivity regarding culture, religion, or gender, are encouraged to resolve such problems as early as possible. Some facilities for initial contact are provided. In particular, the Department of EEE has published a list of staff members of the department who are available for making initial contact for counselling in these areas.


Students' Union. The Overseas Students' Association is an overseas student representative body at Adelaide University. It has long been very active in bridging the cultural gaps that may exist between international students and the local community.


International Student Centre. The Adelaide University's Centre provides support to international students to ensure a smooth transition into the university environment. The Centre also offers advice on a range of issues which may affect students' success at university.



3  Strategy Analysis

We have adopted a two-pronged approach to the incorporation of inter-cultural perspectives and pedagogy. Academic staff members from different disciplines and universities periodically exchange experiences concerning related issues. In the process, staff members become more receptive to the specific and general needs of the students. At the same time, students are made aware of cultural differences of their fellow students. For students joining the course in their third year as part of the twinning program with SIT from Malaysia, a more personal approach is employed, such as the forum undertaken by the departmental international student liaison officer. It cannot be stressed enough that students from a non-English speaking cultural background are generally more reserved. A peer adviser system is one of the new initiatives provided by the Faculty this year. A senior student acts as a mentor to an international student. The scheme appears to be highly beneficial to some students.


Do these strategies reflect good practice? By placing the education and welfare of all students at the highest priority, the Faculty and the Department have been successful in fostering a broader and more enjoyable learning experience for both students and staff. The experience gained from this internationalisation process will be beneficial as there will always be an increase in diversity in educational institutions. In the Faculty of Engineering, we are now planning for a large scale articulation program whereby a significant number of international students who have completed a non-degree diploma can further their studies at university. Inevitably, there will be new challenges that require new strategies.



4  Reflection and Evaluation


The largest cohort of international students in the Department of EEE graduated in 1999. The experience in the integration of inter-cultural perspectives and teaching has been very positive to all in the Department. In reflection, there were a number of factors that contributed to its smooth run. They include a properly planned course curriculum, a conducive learning environment, a friendly city in which to live, and most importantly, the students themselves who were highly motivated and cooperative.