by George Zamora
SOCORRO – Seven Tech students — four from New Mexico Tech and three from Tennessee Tech — traveled to study in Brazil this past summer session as part of an international student exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. During the condensed six-week-long program, participants took classes in mineral engineering topics and experienced first-hand the subtleties and nuances of Brazilian society and culture.
New Mexico Tech serves as the U.S. lead agency for the collaborative higher education program, known as the "US-Brazil Consortium on Mineral Technology and the Environment," and, along with U.S. partner institution Tennessee Tech, make up half of the international university consortium.
Brazilian universities Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre comprise the other half of the student exchange program, which is now entering its fourth and final year of federal funding.
“The objective of the program is to provide opportunities for students to experience the application of professional skills in the area of mineral technology and environmental stewardship in different cultural, social, and academic environments,” says Catherine T. Aimone-Martin, professor of mineral engineering at New Mexico Tech and project director for the consortium’s lead U.S. institution.
Students typically spend one to two semesters studying in Brazil and are provided a stipend to pay for airfare, visa, and living expenses.
“The pre-professional preparation that students are receiving by participating in this program will have great value and impact on the quality of their future professional activity, as well as permit them to become skilled in a very crucial aspect of engineering that relates to sustainable development and economic growth,” she adds.
In addition, administrators at the universities in Brazil also are hoping that participation in the program will help them revamp their curricula, changing the basic teaching and learning processes employed in order to reduce the number of semester credit hours required of Brazilian students to receive their degrees.
Typically, Brazilian universities require that their students complete five years of study and graduate with about 380 credit hours earned to obtain a mining engineering degree, while U. S. universities usually require between 135 and 142 credits for their students to graduate with a similar degree.
The U.S.-Brazil student exchange program is offered on a regular semester basis. However, it became evident that in comparison to their Brazilian counterparts, U.S. students were signing up less for the program, perhaps because of the more rigid, less flexible graduation schedules they were trying to keep in order to graduate in four years.
“Our exchange imbalance, which consists of a total of 11 U.S. students and 29 Brazilians having participated prior to this trial summer session, is not unique since many other types of exchange programs have been experiencing the same reluctance on the part of U.S. students to travel abroad,” Aimone-Martin says.
“Our solution to alleviate this imbalance was to offer a six-week condensed version of the regular program in May and June of this summer,” she adds, “and, it worked out quite well.”
Engineering professors at New Mexico Tech and Tennessee Tech also hope the program will eventually provide their students with more internships and expanded job opportunities to work in Brazil or with mining industries in other developing countries.
"The U.S.-Brazil project has allowed our students various opportunities, while they're still in school, to develop a competitive edge in achieving an international career by reinforcing language learning and understanding the global business culture," Aimone-Martin explains.
Another important component of the program is the intensive language preparation that all the participants undergo prior to departing to their host countries.
New Mexico Tech, for example, in collaboration with the foreign languages department at the University of New Mexico, developed a course in Portuguese that is specific to university students attending Brazilian schools, with an emphasis on terms commonly used in the Brazilian mining industry.
Also, at the early stages of the four-year program, both New Mexico Tech and Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais, with their prior connections to the Internet2, integrated a real-time distance learning component into the shared coursework. Shortly after, fellow consortium members Tennessee Tech and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul followed suit and also hooked up to the advanced, broadband-width connection.
By utilizing the power of Internet2, the US-Brazil Consortium on Mineral Technology and the Environment has developed shared courses, has improved inter-institutional communications, and has been able to quickly resolve student exchange issues, while also expanding the planning and implementation of collaborative projects.
The seven students from New Mexico Tech and Tennessee Tech who qualified to travel to Brazil this summer were accompanied by Aimone-Martin, Wayne Leimer, a Tennesse Tech geology professor, and Christina Sampaio, a New Mexico Tech instructor of Portuguese and native Brazilian who now lives in Socorro.
“We were fortunate to take many field trips throughout Brazil to study the mining industries, experience different cultures, and continue our language learning,” Aimone-Martin says.
The group of American university students and professors also found time on weekends to get away from their studies and enjoy the cultural and historical aspects of Brazil with short trips to take in the sights and sounds of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro.
“After six weeks, we were all ready to come home, yet sad to leave Brazil,” Aimone-Martin relates.
“Our lives are richer for this experience,” she says. “We only wish more college students — here at New Mexico Tech and elsewhere — would venture the world and make use of opportunities such as this program.”
The program will offer the last exchange semester in Spring 2005, and sufficient funds remain to send at least five more students down to Brazil; however, students wishing to participate in the last phase of the program must prepare by taking the Portuguese language course at New Mexico Tech this fall semester.