One Project, Four Countries
Innovative CEE course gives engineering students a taste of international collaboration
Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor Burcu Akinci knows a thing or two about the challenges of international collaboration. Akinci earned BS and MBA degrees in her native Turkey before moving to the United States to earn her MS and PhD at Stanford University, and in the process she took part in projects spanning multiple cultures and languages. Now, she’s sharing her knowledge with CEE students via International Collaborative Construction Management, a project-based course in which students form joint construction ventures with students from universities in Israel, Brazil, and Turkey and tackle the challenges of operating internationally.
The course was the brainchild of Akinci and former (now Adjunct) CEE Professor Lucio Soibelman, a native of Brazil who is currently chair of the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Southern California. “We wanted to recognize the industry need for more globally savvy engineers,” Akinci said. “Many projects these days include participants from different countries, so the course is focused on the cultural aspects of international construction: how do you build a positive team dynamic when you’re working with people across the world whom you’ve never seen?” In 2006, Akinci and Soibelman reached out to professors at Middle East Technical University in Turkey, Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and after extensive planning, the course became a reality.
The course is more reminiscent of a business than a lecture, just as its designers intended. The “client” (a faculty member who also serves as a mentor) presents students with a project that was designed with a specific country in mind: for instance, a two-story medical office building designed to be built in the U.S. The students form small teams with their counterparts from the other three universities and, via video chat, begin to identify what would be required to complete the project in the remaining three countries. Because each country has its own restrictions and opportunities – building material and technology availability, construction regulations, even weather – the teams must modify the design and construction schedule to fit each scenario. After completing an estimate, schedule, and risk assessment of building the facility in each of the four countries, each team selects the “best” option and presents their proposal to the client.
Akinci notes that these projects encourage engineers to be aware of their construction environment. “The goal is not to develop a perfect design; the goal is to value-engineer the project to develop a good alternative for different countries,” she said. “In the process, the students explore and make decisions about possible trade-offs between cost, schedule, and risk within each country and amongst different countries.”
As expected, navigating the mishmash of schedules, time zones, languages, legal systems, and cultural norms has caused a few headaches. Between Carneval, spring break, and misaligned summer and winter breaks, the four universities are in session at the same time for a total of only about 8weeks per semester. Logistical issues are sometimes compounded by fundamental differences between cultures; for instance, contrasting perceptions of time may lead to disagreements and, ultimately, a compromise. However, Akinci urges her students to embrace the challenges. “Students learn the most when they push the process to the limits,” she said. “Collaborating internationally can be stressful, but it also teaches the students a very strong lesson: you can’t enforce rules in a culture that doesn’t live by them.”
The course’s lessons have stretched beyond the walls of Carnegie Mellon. Since it was first offered in 2006, more than one hundred CMU students have taken it. Alumni tell Akinci that they regularly apply lessons from the course to their jobs, and many have stayed in touch with their international teammates. “I see the students grow quite a bit during the course, not only professionally but personally,” she said. “They leave with a better understanding of what it means to work in a global industry.”
International Collaborative Construction Management (course #12610) is offered in the spring semester.