Engineering students from Saudi Arabia participate in internship's first year

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
This summer, 22 engineering students from Saudi Arabia are interning with the MU's College of Engineering for a partnership program with King Abdulaziz University. The program, in its inaugural year, is training the visiting students in a series of hands-on labs and projects.

COLUMBIA — Crowded around a 3-D printer's small viewing window, students from Saudi Arabia watched as the design they made virtually in a lab next door became tangible. Their impression is that 3-D printing is all the rage in the United States, and they joked that all the buildings at MU were made that way.

The 22 students from Saudi Arabia are interning with MU's College of Engineering for its inaugural partnership program with King Abdulaziz University. The six-week program trains the visiting students in a series of hands-on labs and projects. It is one of three international programs that the college launched this year.

Most of the Saudi Arabian students have one year left in a five-year engineering program at their home institute in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

"This group is from different engineering departments — mechanical, electrical, chemical, computer science. The way (King Abdulaziz University) wants us to train them is to train them in multidisciplinary systems," said Ahmed Sherif El-Gizawy, professor and director of the Technology Center at MU and the international program's lead professor. "We form the teams from different backgrounds to work together to understand system design.”

El-Gizawy said that working closely with people in other disciplines is similar to working in the industry.

"It's a big deal because we take different emphasis areas of engineering and expose them to software that they'll use in the real world," MU lab engineer Amer Krvavac said. "They learn things that would be useful in the professional world."

El-Gizawy said they are working ahead of expectations. "Some of the designs that take us three weeks only take them one week," he said.

Jason Shelby, an MU lab engineer who has been working closely with the group, expressed the same sentiment. Shelby is helping them build unmanned aircraft, from first designs to final product.

"The students are at a pretty high level," Shelby said. "We don't have to hold their hand through the entire process."

Students who applied for the program were ranked based on their grade point averages and an English proficiency test as part of the application process. For its first summer, the program received 150 applicants and accepted 24. Only 22 were able to get travel visas.

Krvavac said the students participate in a series of labs — using computer software to design and produce prototypes, writing programs to run assembly lines, the do's and don't's of 3-D printing, and data acquisition, for example — to learn different skills. Each lab has a project at the end, such as applying data acquisition work to test fuel pumps in the school’s basement, and students are put into small groups to work on them.

El-Gizawy assembled a training crew of eight MU graduate and undergraduate research students with experiences in systems design to help instruct and train the Saudi Arabian students.

Both the program and the students are a reminder that math and engineering skills cross all barriers.

"I was expecting to see a little bit of conflict of cultures. We do things completely different," El-Gizawy said. "I didn't find this. I found that everyone on the American side or the Saudi side enjoys these different cultures and exchanges. It enriches everyone's experiences."

Krvavac said there hasn't been much of a language barrier between the students and himself. Rather, it's the everyday American abbreviations, like USB drive versus flash drive, that create confusion. Krvavac said working with the students has helped him improve his English and be more conscious of abbreviations and acronyms in language.

Faisal Omar Bahdad said that in their free time, the students enjoy hanging out downtown and on campus in the engineering library and at the MU Student Recreation Complex.

"I think they bring a unique perspective," said Jessica Trimble, student services coordinator in the College of Engineering. "There are a lot of different cultures that are brought on our campus. It makes you look at things that you see every day in a different way."

Two other summer internship programs are also in their first year at the College of Engineering: one with students from India and the Big Data Analytics Summer Experience with students from China, Hong Kong, the United States, Denmark and Finland. Each program lasts four weeks.

All three groups — the Big Data experience group, India group and Saudi Arabia interns — are at MU now. Trimble takes all three groups on outings to experience Missouri culture. They've visited the Capitol in Jefferson City, which Trimble said they thought was amazing, and toured the Mark Twain museum and cave in Hannibal.

Sometime before they leave, Trimble plans to take the group to Perche Creek and to the Lake of the Ozarks to ride the Tom Sawyer cruise and visit Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

Trimble said the bus rides are always fun, with the students singing songs from their home countries and laughing together. On the Fourth of July, the international students went to the top of Turner Avenue parking garage to watch the fireworks, which Amar Khairy Abideen called amazing but short.

Abideen said what he misses most about home is his family and the food.

"I think that it's important (to have a relationship with King Abdulaziz University) because there is a goal as not only our university, not just our city, not just our nation, but our entire world to fill a need for more engineers," Trimble said. "And if you have collaboration between all of those different countries, then everybody together is working toward that same goal."

To El-Gizawy, getting the students familiar with other cultures is just as important as the material learned in lab.

"The USA is now dealing with a global economy where we have to deal with different countries in the world," he said. "We need to train our students not only for engineering science, but how to deal with these multicultural things in a friendly way so that everyone feels they benefit."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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