Contributed by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College
Students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are much less likely to participate in study abroad programs during their college years than students in other majors.
According to Open Doors 2018, the Institute of International Education’s most recent survey of U.S. study abroad, less than 2 percent of all college students studied abroad in 2016-17, and of that small number of participants, only 5.3 percent were engineering majors and 2.8 percent were math or computer science majors. The report highlights that while the number STEM majors in programs has increased over the past decade, STEM fields continue to be the most underrepresented fields in study abroad.
Yet international experience is vital for STEM students, who will be creating technologies that may impact the entire world. U.S. scientists and engineers also must be able to collaborate on multicultural, international teams to be successful in their careers and tackle global challenges together.
What holds STEM students back from studying abroad? STEM students often have a harder time fitting a semester abroad into a tightly sequenced required program of study, according to IIE’s 2009 white paper, Promoting Study Abroad in Science and Technology Fields. Other reasons named in the report include a lack of encouragement from academic advisors, difficulty in obtaining credit at the home institution for STEM courses taken abroad, and fewer science- and engineering-related study abroad programs overall. Yet another hurdle is language. Because STEM students often have to take more courses in their major, they don’t have as much opportunity to take a series of language courses, and that often limits their study abroad options.
Recognizing the challenges, many colleges and universities have been working to expand study abroad opportunities for STEM students such as making STEM curricula more flexible, weaving opportunities into the curriculum, and creating new programs.
At Harvey Mudd, where we only offer STEM majors, we’ve worked hard to increase participation in study abroad. We were sending on average only 5 percent percent of our junior class on study abroad programs in the early 2000s; now we send 15-18 percent of our juniors abroad.
Engineering major Rikki Walters with her host family in Nepal
I spoke with Harvey Mudd director of study abroad Rhonda Chiles about the challenges and benefits of study abroad and with engineering major Rikki Walters, a student who recently returned from a semester abroad.
Maria Klawe:  Rhonda, what are some of the initiatives that have helped us increase participation in study abroad?
Rhonda Chiles:   We’ve been partnering more closely with our study abroad program providers, meeting with them and telling them our STEM-related needs. They work with schools from around the world to create a portfolio of programs, and we can choose which ones work best for our students. Over the past decade, our providers have worked hard to create more opportunities for STEM majors. It’s still going to be more challenging for STEM majors, but that challenge is less than it was before. Students can say, hey, I want to do this, I can do this, it’s really possible.
We’ve also started to do our own course matching. We work with program providers to get course descriptions and syllabi from the programs and then have our departments look at which ones will match up.  That makes a huge difference.
Klawe: Rikki, why did you want to study abroad?
Rikki Walters: I spent last semester in Nepal, living with a host family and taking classes from Nepali teachers, including intensive Nepali language. Studying abroad was something I always knew I needed to do and wanted to do. You become a more global citizen, you understand different perspectives—it’s invaluable.
Klawe: Was it difficult to fit a semester abroad into your engineering major requirements?
Walters: I knew when I started college that I wanted to be an engineer and I wanted to study abroad. So, I started planning from the day I got here. It’s totally possible to do, but it took a lot of planning. The Nepal semester program is run by Pitzer College, and they have been working over the past few years to make it possible for Harvey Mudd students to participate by bringing in professors from the local universities to teach STEM courses. Since I was the only student that semester taking an engineering class, I was able to provide the professor with Harvey Mudd’s textbook so that he could cover all my required material. It also helped that I took summer math courses and went on a summer engineering program to China, which helped me add credits towards my graduation requirements and gave me some room in my schedule.
Klawe: How important do you think it is for STEM majors to study abroad?
Walters: I think nowadays, STEM workers probably have the largest effect on society. We enable so many different ways to manipulate the things in this world. As the designers and creators rather than the salesmen and businessmen, we don’t always see how the technology we create affects the world, and we’re not always the ones choosing how that technology is applied. Even if we read about the impact of technology from international news, we can’t fully understand it without physically going to another country, experiencing the society for ourselves and talking with the people there. With the tendency to believe more technologically advanced correlates to a better, more knowledgeable and wise society, we lose the ability to listen. It’s essential to listen because otherwise we don’t really know what people in other countries need—we’re just trying to make their society look more like ours. If we really want to help people, then we need to listen to them.