Immersion And Innovation In China

November 26, 2007


By Trey Randall



Jake Chen, a student at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology (USST), left school in mid-August and headed home for a short break before the next semester began. Chen boarded a train where he spent the next 24 hours in a plain wooden seat traveling the nearly 2,000 miles to his home in far western China.

At the same time, a group of 17 Baylor students and five professors were boarding a plane to fly home to Texas from Shanghai, where they had spent the previous six weeks with Chen and other USST students in a program that had pitched the students headlong into the world of international business.

For more than 25 years, Baylor has offered students the opportunity to study abroad--to immerse themselves in the language, economy and culture of a country. Study abroad programs are offered across all areas of study, from law and business to art and music, but few offer as much hands-on, practical work experience as the Immersion Into International Inter-disciplinary Innovation.
The I5 program, as it is known, partners Baylor's Hankamer School of Business and School of Engineering and Computer Science students with students from China's USST and the international Thunderbird School of Global Management to study and evaluate emerging technologies in China's growing high-tech economy.

Cross-cultural student teams are assigned to Chinese businesses to work on real-world projects, where they assess, validate and launch new ventures based on breakthrough technologies. Combining business, engineering and computer science students, the program is geared toward those who want to eventually work in a technology-based business.

"The mode of study in I5 could be classified as technology entrepreneurship," explains Dr. Greg Leman, director of University Entrepreneurial Initiative in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business and I5 program co-director. "Students learn competencies including how to develop a marketing plan and do a business analysis, and how technology and its respective market fit together. It's really about learning the whole package of a business so that all the dimensions can be simultaneously and successfully applied.

"You have to learn that by doing, so we set out to create an educational boot camp experience that would bring all of that to bear."

A program transformed



The I5 program grew out of Baylor's Maastricht, Netherlands, study abroad program that began in 2001. The Maastricht program primarily was oriented toward class work. After a time, I5 co-director Cindy Fry of the School of Engineering and Computer Science was asked to consider how the program might be expanded to include a working environment with industry-related projects.

Fry and Leman both recognized that engineering and computer science have rigorous degree programs with few electives and that often these students don't have wiggle room in their schedule for a semester abroad. Unlike a music or art major who might benefit from a summer of music or museum studies abroad, the engineering and computer science students' studies typically happen on the Baylor campus.

"We recognize that these students need something that gives them opportunities in other parts of the world," Fry says. "Engineering and computer science students can really benefit from foreign study in a business setting. The business world realizes that it needs technically competent but globally and culturally savvy workers. For a Christian university to have this entrée is an amazing opportunity for life experience on so many levels.

"Engineers work in businesses that produce things at a grand scale and have a broad impact," she continues. "Therefore, it was important to develop a program in a relevant location that shows firsthand the various facets of the business world--not just the engineering of a product but the business side of it as well.
"We considered what directions the program should take and China seemed to be that logical choice," Fry says. "It's a place of innovation. There is a lot going on in China right now that we could take advantage of, so this year we moved the program to Shanghai."

Recent cultural changes in China have opened the doors to partnerships that simply were not available years ago. The University of Shanghai for Science and Technology was a good match for the I5 program, as it had been a part of international academic exchange for 20 years. USST is a multidisciplinary university that offers its 12,000 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students training in engineering, management, commerce, arts, science and medicine.
"USST operates under the guiding principle of 'a footing in Shanghai, a view of the world,'" Leman says. "The university there has established 13 other joint international programs with universities outside of China."

Along with corporate partners Honeywell and Dow Chemical, USST has ties to high-tech business incubators--known in Europe and Asia as science parks--where small and early-growth companies get their start. The parks provide infrastructure, mentoring and other services in one location. Research occurs in a think tank-like setting, and companies are often launched from the findings.
USST has 100 such companies in its science park; students in the I5 program worked for some of these firms doing actual research that was presented for use at the end of the six-week session.

Getting down to business



Students and faculty left Texas on July 2 for six weeks of study in Shanghai. The program kicked off with classroom studies designed to introduce students to Chinese culture and history. Most work was done in the campus setting, but students interacted with their corporate sponsors on a regular basis--at least once per week. One company even paid for students to fly to a remote location for weekend work.

As with any new program, there were some growing pains. For example, faculty colleagues at USST were to teach in English, but some only spoke Chinese, which was a roadblock for the American students. Alternately, some Chinese students couldn't read the English textbooks. Fortunately, translators and team-teaching tactics helped to smooth out some of the bumps.

Leman said the learning curve was valuable for future I5 initiatives. During the first half of each future summer session, an MBA student acting as project sponsor will take on an internship to develop all aspects of the program and the project objectives. This person will be positioned for initial research to help remove program risks and increase effectiveness before the arrival of the other I5 participants.

There was also the challenge of performing market analysis and research in a foreign country. Students discovered that little information is available publicly because of the governmental oversight. The information that is publicly available is not always accurate.

"When we were doing our market research, Internet regulations made it difficult to access information, particularly government statistics or regulations," says Jessica Stout, a junior electrical and computer engineering major from Midland, Texas. "Doing the phone work was a challenge as well. Most companies hung up on us when we called seeking data because they're not used to such requests."
But going into the I5 program, Stout says her hope was to gain the experience of working with people from different cultures and other majors. It afforded the opportunity to learn about business and communication skills firsthand, as well as how to work with people of different backgrounds. She adds that a Mandarin language course she took in Shanghai helped her to comprehend some of the spoken language.

"One of the concepts we learned about is Guanxi (pronounced "gwan-shee")," Stout says. "We don't really have a direct translation for it here, but it pertains to the relationship of friendship and trust between companies and individuals. It's important to have Guanxi to do business effectively in China. Without it, nobody will talk to you."

Kevin Rooney, a junior computer science major from Wichita Falls, Texas, notes that the Chinese students in the I5 program were particularly helpful in this area.
"The Chinese students all spoke English as a second language and they could help the American students with any language or cultural issues," he says. "They were very driven and dedicated to the project--such hard workers and great people to work with."

Different culture, different customs



The I5 program devotes about one-third of its course to building cross-cultural teams and helping students appreciate how cultural differences impact business decision-making, financial backing of new ventures and team dynamics.
"One of the things we realized is that we had the most diverse one-room schoolhouse you've ever seen," Leman says. "We've got some of the top MBA students in the world who have the interest to push the envelope and do global things, and then you've got some undergrads whose maturity and experience opportunities were way different. ... Along the way, we had to drop a bunch of things that we had hoped to do because the challenge of just communicating with their own teams was so intense and took up so much time that we had to find them room to get their jobs done."

Beyond the language barrier, Stout points out that social faux pas can be easy to make when you're not aware of the rules of the culture. "For example, we're used to saying 'thank you' quite often as part of polite conversation," Stout says. "In China, 'thank you' is considered rude between friends or colleagues. Appreciation is something that's more to be understood than spoken."
When Stout was invited to a Chinese student's home for dinner, she wanted to take a gift for the family.

"Fortunately, I learned ahead of time that it would be rude to take a gift of food but that offering fruit or flowers is the correct thing to bring to someone's home," she says. "I brought fruit, and my new friend was so happy that I took the time to learn and understand her culture. ... The Chinese students were really kind to us and they gently helped us with cultural differences that we needed to be aware of and otherwise would not have known."

Some of the obvious cultural differences pertained to food, and Baylor students had a wide variety of opinions on the cuisine.

"It's just so different from what I'm used to," Stout says. "We often weren't sure exactly what we were eating. But I can also say that I ate things that I wouldn't have tried here in the U.S. When I was invited to my friend's home--a really neat, personal experience--I tried jellyfish, stuffed snail and pig's feet. Her grandmother just kept putting food on my plate, so you had to try things."
Sequoyah Johnson, a junior computer science major from Redwater, Texas, enjoyed the variety.

"From my perspective there was a lot of variety in regional foods in China," Johnson says. "In Xi'an we ate in a Muslim restaurant and in Beijing we were served the famous Peking Duck. But there are also some western restaurants. For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken is reportedly the fastest-growing restaurant chain over there."

Taking in the sights



Despite workloads that often kept students working into the weekend, most students did find time to see some of China's many historical sites and tourist attractions. The group took in a boat tour on the Huang Pu River and a performance at the Peking Opera; weekend excursions included the Great Wall of China in Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
The group also traveled to Jinan, with its city of springs, and Tai Shan Mountain, the largest mountain in Eastern China and the place where emperors would give ceremonial offerings. However, the overwhelming highlight for all seemed to be the jaunt to Xi'an to see the museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses--an ancient site that has been excavated near the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, uncovering more than 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons.

But even for all the fantastic sights, sounds and cuisine, Johnson maintains that the business aspect was the highlight of the trip.

"For me, this program was all about seeing the other side of engineering--the business side versus the programming and writing side--and how it all fits together," he says. "By participating in I5, I think I'm more well-rounded from all that I got to see and experience while I was in China, plus the opportunity to do in-depth, professional work. I like that our final deliverable at the end of the project was a large report that we presented to the partnering company that they can actually use in taking a product to market."

Other students echoed Johnson's comments.



"I definitely think that my time spent on I5 will be valuable when I begin to put together my résumé after college," Stout says. "My I5 sponsor company was Dow Corning, so it's like I've done an internship with them, plus I got the international experience as well."

Rooney added that although the experience was outside of his comfort zone, getting to work on a project with people of other majors and strengths--six of them Chinese--opened up a brand new world.

"It was a taste of the business world, working with a global company, and was very beneficial to my communication skills," he says. "I think the value in my participation with I5 is that I will stand out to a potential employer for having the advantage of working in a foreign setting. Working in China has definitely broadened my horizons."

I5--Looking to the Future



Both Leman and Fry eagerly anticipate the growth of the I5 program.
Down the road, the professors hope to add other sites to the program, possibly within the next three years. Potential sites include Dubai, South America and Central Texas.

"As far as a Waco location, we could get, say, 50 students from host universities to come here while we send 50 Baylor students abroad," Leman says. "We also are working on expanding the program onto the Baylor campus in Waco for students not wanting or not able to travel abroad. Having a Waco program would provide the business basics of the international program with business writing, corporate study and languages. Through I5 we want students to receive training in different ways of thinking, in a different culture, while learning the 'hows' and 'whys' of a particular business."

In the meantime, the students and even the professors have each returned home with a bevy of connections, experiences and friends they otherwise would not have, Fry says.

"There are three or four that I have kept in touch with, and I know that in several of the teams' cases, the students that they befriended there will be friends for life.

"Our objectives were met far beyond our highest expectations. The students, in the midst of it, hated the amount of work that they were doing and the fact that a lot of the work was not like anything they were used to doing," she notes. "But we took nine engineering and computer science students, and of the nine, eight have come up as a result and said, 'What is it going to take for me to get an internship?' or 'What is it going to take for me to find a job there?'

"That tells us that the experience was hard, but it changed the way they think about their future. It opened up a whole new realm of possibilities, and they see that there is nothing they can't do."

For more information on I5 and other study abroad programs, visit www.baylor.edu/study_abroad.
Are you looking for more News?