Monday, June 16, 2008

Journey of Thousands of Miles Is the First Step

Chiu ChoiChiu Choi

Electrical Engineering

There is a Chinese saying: “a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” I went to Taiyuan University of Science and Technology in Taiyuan, China for a short visit last month. I was accompanied by our Associate Dean Dr. Merckel. The purpose of the trip was to learn about their academic programs, infrastructure, resources, and to discuss with their leaders about exchange programs. The experience of this trip is unique. After this travel of thousands of miles, we have gotten the first step toward building a good relationship with the Chinese university.

After stepping off the plane, I noticed air pollution in Taiyuan. I was forewarned about it in prior web-browsing on the city of Taiyuan. The success of the local coal mining and other heavy industries comes with the price of polluted air. Air pollution is common in China as we all know. Even in non-industrial cities like Hong Kong and Macau, their air is also polluted. It is due to the movement of polluted air into those cities from the neighboring Pearl River delta areas, which are the heart of the “factories of the world.”

The hospitality provided by the university was superb. They treated us very nice and gave us much convenience in our few days of stay at Taiyuan. We had the opportunity to meet with their university president, vice presidents and college deans. We discussed with them potential collaboration and exchange programs. They showed us their resources and infrastructures. They have a good number of laboratories supporting a wide array of majors in engineering. Their flagship programs appear to be manufacturing of heavy machinery and material engineering. These majors are relevant to and very well supported by the local industries.

The university arranged for us a tour of a heavy machinery factory and a stainless steel plant. The heavy machinery factory produces construction and excavating equipment. To me it is sort of the John Deere of China. They also made the launch platforms for the rockets used in the Chinese space program.

The stainless steel plant was also very impressive. The heat was more than intense when the steel came out of the furnace. The literally red hot steel was rolled to thin sheets eventually. It was amazing to see how they got pressed and rolled over and over again and chopped into sizes suitable for shipping and handling. In the guided tour, I saw just a few workers in the production line. The manufacturing process was obviously automated. This plant was one of the largest in the world in terms of the amount of steel produced per year.

The administrators of Taiyuan University indicated that their graduating engineers became productive shortly after getting onboard these plants and others. It was because these graduates received education closely matching these manufacturing processes. Such approach reflects the old Russian style of engineering education according to the administrators. In the U.S. according to the national engineering accreditation criteria, we tend to focus on the fundamentals and give the students a more balanced education.

To appreciate the local culture and tradition, the university arranged a tour of several ancient sites for us to see. One of the historic sites was a walled city owned by a family for generations. This family compound was huge and looked extremely affluent at its time. They accumulated their wealth through tea trading with Europeans. They picked the tea leaves at one corner of China and shipped them across China to Eastern and Western Europe. The caravan navigated the first third of their journey along the Chinese rivers and continued the rest of the journey through the deserts and mountains by camels. A typical trip took three years to complete. The World War I and the extension of railroads into China from the West brought down this family business.
We have accomplished our goals of this trip. A cooperation agreement that promotes academic exchanges was jointly signed. Information about academic programs at both universities was shared. Most importantly friendship was built that will facilitate the success of our cooperation in the future.

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