Researching Engineering in China

Special Note

The Great Wall of China. Again.

If you’re reading this, you likely share my interest in career and culture. Maybe you were one of 32 scholars in our Engineering & Technology Delegation with the China 2017 International Scholar Laureate Program (ISLP) with Envision Experience, or one of hundreds of scholars who attended the other Delegations in Medicine, Business or Diplomacy. You might be a fellow peer in science education who understands my passion in travel, or you could be my family and friends who know the various paths in leadership I’ve taken over the years. For this Journey on researching engineering careers in China, it really doesn’t matter who you are. Each leg of this Journey is separated into categories around themes in jobs, opportunities, science, engineering, etc. to attempt to organize my thoughts around this mind-boggling experience. This story is about a rare opportunity I had to combine my passion of both career and travel into one amazing two-week trip through three cities in China, with aspiring engineers from around the world.

J is for Job

“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop.”

A long time ago, I was tackling a residency issue at the University of Montana. I met with the registrar who helped me through my undergrad hurdle. It was late summer, and as I began to walk out, he hesitated behind his desk and asked me a curious question.

“Do you have a good pair of boots?”

“No, sir, why?”

“You’re going to need them to kick ass.”

Even now, I still remember the strange smile he had on his face as I left his office. Didn’t that comment just… seem to come out of the blue? It did to me, too. Was he speaking metaphorically or was I missing some sort of joke? He was right, of course. The many boots I’ve worn did come in handy TONS over the years. Whether it’s hiking Half Dome in Yosemite or teaching middle school science outdoors in Montana or Maryland, boots come with the job. IMG_0499So, imagine the chilling and unbelievable cloak of dread that fell over me as I realized I’d forgotten them. On THIS trip of all trips. You’d think as an Advisor for the International Scholar Laureate Program (ISLP) with Envision Experience, I of all people would show up in Beijing, China, with my faithful, very worn, boots. Alas, half way through the long flight, it hit me. They were safely next to my where my suitcase was; I would have to do this job without them.

IMG_7511ISLP has a variety of Delegations, not just Engineering and Technology, and each one comprises of advisors and scholars from around the world. How I was fortunate enough to be selected for the privilege of facilitating this delegation is a little beyond humble me. Yet the opportunity to combine my experience in travel, STEM education, and professional development with a mostly typical college age-group was unbeatable. Welcome to my journey, in flats.

The Job Waypoint 
Each leg of a journey is marked with points of reflection, akin to using waypoints in nautical navigation. In my Journey, Waypoints are multimedia tidbits reflecting on my passage, what I’ve learned, etc. To get started, here’s a quick look at China’s new and not-so-new clashing and beautiful balances.

O is for Opportunity

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger-but recognize the opportunity.”
-John F. Kennedy

IMG_3172Speaking of opportunity, let’s talk about the unsurpassed locations and speakers involved with this Delegation. First, scholars experienced China’s ancient and modern sites including the Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the very beautiful Era Acrobatics Entertainment show in Shanghai. By the way, if you’d ever told me I would get to walk on the Great Wall of China not once, but twice, in my lifetime, I would have laughed at you. Or at least politely chuckled… I have been before (the last time I had my boots), but that’s a total different story. I’m so thankful I’d experienced China before as understanding just some of the culture shock in this incredibly complex country, especially by starting in Beijing, was invaluable. When I first accepted this role, I immediately reflected on the clashes and beauty in opposites I saw China offer this planet, just since I visited two years ago. New vs. old, traditional vs. modern, rich vs. poor, open vastness vs. megacities, simple lives vs. engineering marvels unparalleled in most countries on Earth. Not only was I experiencing sites well-traveled by tourists AND mega factories and manufacturing facilities, but I was also responsible for helping my scholars experience unprecedented sites, without sensory overloading. Everything was possible in this trip, but none of it would be easy.

Our packed academic itinerary included speakers from and visits to:

  • Interacting in the Global Community: Cross-Cultural Communication by Xavier Sans Powell, Beijing (for all Delegations)
  • China Earthquake Disaster Center, presentation on History of Architecture in China by Professor Shi Wei, Beijing
  • China Aeronautical University and aviation museum, Beijing
  • BOE, screen display (and flexible screens!) manufacturer, one of 12 facilities, Beijing
  • Pratt & Whitney Jet Engine Training and Development Center, Beijing
  • Three Gorges Dam, site of the largest dam in the world, Yichang
  • Three Gorges University, with local students and tour campus facilities, Yichang
  • Automotive Market and Behavior Data Institute, Director of School of Automotive Studies, Shanghai
  • Saii Volkswagen Assembly Line and Factory Tour, Shanghai (among the best 20 minutes of my life, sorry strictly no pictures allowed).





What can I say? ISLP offers an experience unlike any other and I’m lucky I got to be there. Oh, another really great thing we got to experience: English Corner. This is a special thing that some universities do to bring large groups of people together to practice conversational English. Not surprisingly, it was on a corner in the campus of Renmin University, or the People’s University, in Beijing. This part of ISLP – immersing scholars in culture and meeting folks in-country – was really special. I heard some scholars didn’t leave until well into the evening, still chatting with their new friends in either broken or smooth English. That was pretty cool.

I hope you enjoy this photo gallery of the various academic locations we explored in Beijing, Yichang, and Shanghai.

U is for Unique

“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”
-Asian Proverb

My boss and I.

My boss and I.

Patient and curious scholars arrived from the USA, Canada, Australia, Colombia, Puerto Rico and beyond. My group represented a fairly typical age-range with a few exceptions, like a 67-year old retired military gentleman returning to community college in South Windsor, Connecticut. My work with K-12 education and curriculum development has allowed me to work with many age groups, but this group was very unique to me.

What made this journey unique was facilitating adult education via international travel. To date, I had a) taught children inside and outside the classroom, b) led international space school programs for teens in Houston, and c) provided professional development to adults including STEM teacher certification coaching. I’d also traveled, solo, extensively the last two years, chasing a goal to visit 4o countries and build, a science and literacy resource for secondary classrooms. Working with ISLP was my first time advising a group of adults, not only on career paths, but also on how to flexibly travel. Delays are inevitable, food choices don’t always abound, and respect with a smile, always, is key. It turns out that simple rules like staying prepared, taking responsibility for your own actions, and advanced organization all apply to both leadership and travel. I really enjoyed the intangibles of this unique leadership experience. In fact, I am placing a well-crafted hint, right here, that I will happily take more opportunities like this in the future.

IMG_3328 IMG_3313By far the most unique part of this adventure was the company I broke bread with. One woman, a manager for Walmart in Florida, approached me on leading professional development workshops and how to curb the nerves in doing so. Seeing as how my answer was “practice, practice, practice,” I delegated my fifth and final workshop for ISLP to her, where she facilitated the planning and implementing of scholars’ Final Projects and Presentations. Another brave scholar had never been on a plane, let alone another country. Some are machinists, others on track to build spaceship parts. One is headed toward neuroscience and brain transplants, but struggles with letting go of his dreams to become a jet engine mechanic. Some were tenacious, others quiet, yet our group really seemed to get along – and I’m the one that got to meet them all!

Most scholars were chosen for leadership opportunities based on delegating tasks such as briefing/debriefing speaking events, taking attendance for bus counts (“you know what to do!”) and helping disseminate essential information during group travel. One particular highlight was meeting a scholar who studies at my graduate school alma mater, Montana State University. A coincidence, yes, it’s just that we didn’t discover it until I was literally filming his introduction for my engineering video! Together, we met pilots, electrical and civic and mechanical engineers, artists, game designers and computer programmers, biologists, and last but not least, Max.


Max, or Magic Max as I called him, is the Travel Manager whom ISLP utilizes in-country to ensure a seamless experience from event to event, city to city, for the entire duration of ISLP. In my personal travels, I hadn’t experienced this before, not even in China. Where does one begin with the topic of Max? That he’s articulate, well-spoken, cheerful and fun? Confident and clear, even when challenged? Always helpful, Max was a life-saver in so many ways. In my opinion, China is a challenging country, and being a new Advisor for the program held its own challenges. We had a great group, and even with what I consider a smooth 12 days, it couldn’t be easy being Max. Things could have gotten weird, what with so many challenges inevitable with group travel. Lost scholars, lost items, program changes, language barriers, coordination across other Delegations, staffing changes… And yet, he made everything look so easy, especially by sharing his love of tea, China’s rich cultural and political history with family stories, engineering details of the many sites we experienced, and stories emphasizing the role of balancing opposing forces in China. I admit, I was nervous about returning to China but when I met Max, I knew everything was going to be OK. All I can say is Xiexie, Max.

Here’s a nice way to put leadership and its continuum along teaching and learning when in group settings such as this. As we walked through Tiananmen Square, along the brightly colored shrubs and red flags waving in the hot breeze, a scholar from the Pacific Northwest told me a helpful phrase his mountain-climbing mother taught him, “One must have a guide the first time. You can’t find the top of the mountain all by yourself.”

R is for Real Science

“It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
-Terry Pratchett

Here is what it’s like to see the Three Gorges Dam after a breath-taking drive through central China’s cliffs in Yichang. Alarming. Combined with China’s aggressive infrastructure updates to accommodate the migration of millions of citizens to megacities, including the Nanjing Metro, Pingtang telescope, Shanghai Tower, the Su-Tong Yangtze River Bridge, the world’s largest dam in Yichang shouldn’t be so difficult to digest since its ‘just one’ of China’s engineering marvels.


After awhile, you think you should get used to it. “It’s China,” you think, “where huge dreams are realized and structures built.” Yet as you take the many escalators to the dam’s viewing area and see the Yangtze’s fractured flow with your very own eyes, you begin to question it. Question everything. How can a dam this size be built? How many of them are there? Why are there relatively few articles and videos about this dam available, especially since its completion in 2009? Does China use all the electricity the dam’s dozens of generators create? Export any of it? If the dam’s sole purpose is for flood prevention downstream, especially Shanghai, then why are other downstream towns in severe drought? What about the tremors and landslides recorded upstream, likely a result of the increased pressure on the land itself? The dam’s BILLION TONS of water weighs a lot, so much in fact, the wobble of Earth is affected.

Debriefing, often done on the bus in the interest of time.

Debriefing, often done on the bus in the interest of time.

A scholar from Tasmania, who quickly became known as the “dam expert,” led a sobering debriefing session on the effects of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s ecosystem, both ecologically and politically. It’s a known fact that the increased water storage affects the climate in this area of central China with increased temperature and precipitation. Smaller dams produce more electricity, or at least more electricity than is currently used. If more than 82% of China’s energy usage comes from coal, why isn’t more of the electricity from Three Gorge’s readily used? And those tremors? There were 822 recorded in 2006 – that’s an average of four per day. Regardless of the strong granite bedrock the gravity concrete dam sits on, or the fault lines going through it, this particular dam (one of 42 along the Yangtze) brings questions to anyone’s mind – engineer, environmentalist, or both.

N is for New

“Science is about knowing. Engineering is about doing.”
– Henry Petroski

In other Journeys, N is for New is the leg of curriculum that corresponds to students interpreting trends based on data and making predictions. In this Journey, however, the problem-solving process is a bit different for engineers. Engineers create solutions for the problems based on questions that scientists have already identified and answered (or are in the process of answering) based on empirical data. It, like the engineering design process, is an iterative cycle of problem identification and solution design. I’m not an engineer – I’m a science teacher and curriculum developer dedicated to promoting scientific literacy in light of the new Science and Engineering Practices standards in the USA. Yet, I believe I speak for all my peers in science education; the common link in all these disciplines is communication.

A panelist for the San Jose State University Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering stated, in a 2016 alumni event, stated “The engineering degree just gets you to the interview. But so many of our applicants are lacking interpersonal relationship skills. Teams, clients, management, leadership — they all require these skills, and if you talk about your experience with these skills, you are miles ahead of the other applicants.” Engineers must work together to produce solutions based on the problems of the 21st century. This includes resources management like water supply, energy supply and – well, you name it, there’s a problem waiting to be solved. It’s hard to know where to start, but I believe communication is a good place.

In one debrief after a thorough lecture on ancient and modern architecture through China’s rich history, we reflected on a question “how can architecture be adjusted to accommodate the growing demand for water in China?” by passing a journal for scholars to collaboratively add notes to. Each day, we modeled best practices in business and team development, including briefing and debriefing speaking events and site visits. This ‘in frame’ focus of delegating tasks such as introducing speakers, facilitating in-depth question and answer sessions, and formally thanking speakers directly to scholars is an example of modeling collaboration and leadership.

In ISLP, several best practices were utilized to promote individual, small-group and whole-group communication skills. The process of self-assessment and group feedback was implemented through individual handbooks, pre- and post- assessments, group evaluations, and Final Projects’ presentation feedback. I’ll get into that shortly, because now is the time to acknowledge the cross-cultural communication we had with dozens of students from Three Gorges University. Sometimes, you get to see the best of humanity, and I’m convinced a slice of it was in this campus tucked away in Yichang. Bare classrooms, tiny dorms, unreasonable schedules – AND smiling faces. Some witty, others incredibly shy, these students made instant friends with our scholars and served us food, danced, and shared stories of their lives. Oh, and they gave us a brilliant talent show, ISLP-style.

Talent show video coming soon!

E is for Engineering

“Engineering is not only study of 45 subjects, but it is moral studies of intellectual life.”
-Prakhar Srivastav

Let’s chat engineering. In the “Journey” format, originally used as the curriculum template for, E is for Engineering is the leg that elaborates the work of engineers to make the science previously covered possible. It might include the criteria and constraints identified for a group of engineers to deal with as they collaborate with scientists and conduct research on, say, dolphins. The reason for the Engineering Leg is to meet the need of science educators to have engineering represented in their science classrooms – a recent call to action by the Next Generation Science Standards, released in the USA in 2013. In essence, the Engineering leg augments the rest of the science curriculum.

In this case, however, you’re experiencing an entire Journey solely on the topic of engineering. So what do I do here? Highlight the specific engineers, or the fields they focus on? The five female engineers I had in my group? Early vs. mid-career engineers and where they are in their fields? What kinds of problems they are working to solve in their respective fields of structural, electrical, or mechanical engineering? More on that soon.

In an initiative to promote engineering practices in science education through the new Next Generation Science Standards, the topic of engineering is relatively recent for us science teachers. Learning from pioneers such as Bozeman Science, Engineering is Elementary, and Phenomenon for NGSS, engineering education is getting infused with science practices and vice versa. Engineers solve problems and find solutions for current problems in today’s shrinking world. From designing efficient use of plastic utensils to building mega-tall or wide structures, engineers work with scientists to take what is understood and adapt it for organisms’ sake.

How does this relate to our trip in China? For that answer, I’m turning to the 32 scholars and getting their perspectives. Let’s ask them, “What is the future of engineering for our younger engineers?”





Y is for You!

“The roots of education were bitter, but the fruits sweet.”

Yes,Y is for You! In, students are asked to create their final project, or performance assessment, demonstrating what they’ve learned in their journey. In Researching Dolphins, they ‘report to the Belizean Government’ on dolphin habitats. Middle school students make climate maps for the popular National Parks education program in Researching Climate, etc. In this case, however, I’m passing a proverbial baton of learning to you, the reader, especially if You! are a scholar along this ISLP Journey. Not only can you share about your experiences with each other through the great commodore we created in social media, but You! can also share below in the comments (You! know what to do!).

Together, we completed a big milestone in our careers. This included collaborating as peers to build final projects and presentations on problems to be solved through engineering. For most in my group, the focus was on water resource management in China, particularly when water is available for millions in a country of billions. This project’s guidelines helped frame the real-world situation for the scholar groups’ focus, goals and roles necessary to address the topic. They had a defined target audience, and were expected to outline the steps necessary to complete this process. Scholars are asked to do this with limited resources, including time and technology. Scholars were also asked to constantly reflect on progress of their individual, small group and whole group collaboration and communication skills. Good stuff.

How do I think I did? If my performance is reflected at all in the continual collaboration and ease of communication with my group, then I’d humbly say it went well. Yet I’m only one coordinator of this event, and I only did what I do best – coordinate myself right out of the picture. Maybe it’s true that good leaders are also good followers… Even if that is true, our group truly kicked ass. I guess I didn’t need my boots after all.

Please leave your comments, and thank you for everything ISLP!

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Jamie Semple, as well as the great staff and scholars who keep this journey real.

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Full Circle J. Productions, Bringing Science and Media Full Circle.

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