MEMP Students Create Labs for Saudi Arabian Women Engineering Students

April 1, 2006

For college students, work study projects are typically a hum drum but necessary part of financing an education. But five Master of Engineering Management students working on interactive electrical engineering projects got a surprise trip of a lifetime to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from Feb. 9-16. They attended the Jeddah Economic Forum, led undergraduate student workshops and interacted with faculty at Effat College in the city of Jeddah.

The work study team is helping Pratt design introductory computer engineering labs and instructional manuals for the students and faculty at Effat College, a private, all women's college. Pratt is working with the college to help it launch a bachelor degree-level academic program in computer engineering, the first ever undergraduate engineering curriculum for women in Saudi Arabia.

The team includes Bansi Kotecha of Bombay, India; Kristen Yoder of Knoxville, Tenn.; Srikanth Chunduri of Hyderabad, India; Rahul Raj Gogna of Delhi, India; and Anjana Bhagavan of Bangalore, India. The Duke-Effat project is led by Senior Associate Dean for Education Tod Laursen, ECE Department Chair Hisham Massoud and Marianne Hassan Risley, assistant dean for new initiatives.

In the fall of 2005, Laursen and Hassan Risley asked the students to come up with three to five hands-on laboratory projects to help introduce the Effat students to electronics engineering.

The MEM students split into two groups, with one group focused on customizing existing lab projects and the other group (the self proclaimed Tinkerers) focused on "out of the box" projects. Ultimately, the team took three projects to Effat: Mousebot-E, Boe-bot and an iPod music-based exercise. The projects were designed to give Effat students a chance to build a breadboard, do some programming, some soldering and to create working machines.

The Mousebot-E project requires students to build a light and touch sensitive machine made from the shell of a computer mouse, two antennas and a touch sensor. The Boe-bot project requires students to program a plug-and-play robot. The iPod project gave students a chance to measure and manipulate the digital representation of popular music, and to make connections between concepts like sampling and compression rates, and sound quality.

"The goal was for students to do the lab projects and to understand how the electronic components work when connected in a circuit. It was exciting to work on these projects because we all wished we could have done these kinds of things as undergraduates ourselves," said Gogna, whose BSE focused on electrical engineering.

It was particularly challenging for the team to design projects for students they didn't know, in part because they did not have a shared cultural basis to help them gauge how comfortable the undergraduate women would be with electronics. They also had to be concerned with a language barrier, and be careful not to use slang, unnecessary abbreviations or overly complicated sentence structure.

"We didn't want the young women to be intimidated. We wanted them to get excited and curious and to ask questions. We hoped that the lab projects would keep them from feeling intimidated and help them choose their future courses," said Chunduri, who also majored in EE.

The team's own diversity helped them gain the right perspective for the hands-on portion of the labs as well as the manuals. "I felt like I was able to help with this because my undergraduate degree was in materials science and engineering, not electronics," said Yoder. "I was able to guide the team back to the basics when we started getting too complicated."

The format and depth of content for the student and faculty instruction manuals developed over time, but the team ultimately chose a very visual, picture-intensive approach. "We thought it was important for the students to see, step by step what they were building, so they would understand how all the components went together and didn't have to just read instructions line by line," said Gogna.

"For the faculty manuals, we tried to anticipate the kinds of questions they would get from students during and after the lab projects, and included links to a lot of information on the Web and references to books. We didn't have a lot of information about who the instructors would be," said Kotecha, who majored in EE.

"In a sense, this was a great project to practice management techniques we were learning through the Master of Engineering Management Program," said Chunduri. "We evaluated the situation based on what we knew and figured out what was needed using a customer focus. This is a classic case of introducing a successful local product into another market with a strikingly different customer base. What sells well in one market might be completely irrelevant for another. The iPod project was a successful laboratory with Duke students. We had to ensure that this product will have a good a success level at Effat too. We tried mitigating most risks and surprises by preparing for the worst case scenario."

Prepped with the best of intentions and excited to be part of something big happening for the first time, the MEM students took their projects to Effat. The two women on the team, Yoder and Bhagavan, took the lead in working with the veiled students in the first class. The whole team was confronted with what it means to work in a segregated society, where men and women live largely separate lives and women must be almost entirely covered when in the presence of men.

"I think we hadn't realized how much we depend on information from people's facial expressions, gestures and body movements. It was really challenging just trying to recognize different students in the class when all we could see was their eyes," said Yoder.

Two of the men, Kotecha and Gogna, took a secondary role in the laboratory in order to make the students more comfortable with foreigners in a mixed gender environment. "I walked around the whole time with my head down so as not to offend anyone," said Gogna. "But eventually the girls became comfortable with having us around. They were much more technically savvy than we had imagined."

Although the students were initially very quiet and hesitant, they eventually became engrossed in the projects and particularly enjoyed soldering.

"Pratt's project with Effat College provides us a unique opportunity to affect women's engineering education at an international level. Seeing the Duke and Effat students working together in a laboratory was very exciting. The level of the students' excitement about discovery was inspiring!" said Pratt's Hassan Risley.

Chunduri presented the iPod project to the Effat faculty. "Most of the faculty were women, and they wore an abaya and headscarf. Most had studied and lived abroad. In fact, one of the faculty had gone to N.C. State University, so we talked basketball for a bit. Therefore, they were obviously very comfortable and made eye contact with me," he said.

Chunduri said he believes many of the Effat faculty have come back to Saudi Arabia after living abroad because they want to make a difference in the lives of other women. "I think they are balancing that desire against the restrictions of their lives. They are here to give back."

The city of Jeddah is considered to be one of the most progressive areas of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The annual three-day Jeddah Economic Forum draws as many as 2,500 people from the Kingdom and around the world including the presidents of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Senegal and the prime ministers of Pakistan and Malaysia. The forum is an opportunity to engage in practical, respectful criticism in an effort to charter growth and development.

"One of the forum speakers was the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who talked about the problems Ireland has had in battling the exodus of young people who choose to study, live and work abroad," said Gogna. "At the Jeddah Forum, we clearly got the message that Saudi Arabia wants to keep their students in the country for education and for employment to help develop the country."

The forum has also attracted active participation of women speakers and delegates for the past four years. This year's women speakers included Haifa Jamal Al Lail, dean of Effat College in Jeddah, and Wahi Loqman, professor of law at King Abdul Aziz University. Pratt Dean Kristina M. Johnson was part of a panel at the forum on "Entrepreneurship in Education and the Workplace and in Education," along with Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy.

"There was a lot of talk about the economic challenges of building new employment opportunities for women in a segregated society," Chunduri said.

"We saw a lot of people working very hard to change perceptions of life in Saudi Arabia," said Yoder. "They realize they cannot build their economy only on oil, and that they need to incorporate technology in order to grow. The message to the women at Effat is that bright students do have opportunities in Saudi Arabia."

In addition to attending the Jeddah Economic Forum and the students and teachers at Effat, the MEM students had a chance to explore the town of Jeddah and the local restaurants and markets. Some even went snorkeling in the Red Sea.

This project is supported by grants from the U.S. State Department MEPI program and Effat College.