How to Navigate Science and Engineering Abroad

Every weekday morning, the University of Auckland campus inflates with over 30,000 students. 8 hours later, the campus shrinks as nearly all of the students commute back to their home outside of Auckland city. The University of Auckland is New Zealand’s highest ranking university, and it’s renowned for its research and success in STEM.

Yet, coming from a university in the United States, the academic system in New Zealand was a big shock, and it tested my abilities to adapt to something entirely different.

Academic Differences

To start, there are a few fundamental differences between the academic system in New Zealand and the system at my school in the United States:

  • Most undergraduate students specialized toward the end of high school, and students tend to graduate college in 3 years. American degrees tend to take 4 years. This gives students in New Zealand a head start, and the course content tends to be advanced immediately. For example, my Organic Chemistry course relies on significant background knowledge even though it’s a first-year course. I had a lot of catching up to do!
  • Auckland Uni is a commuter campus: people live at home or outside of the city, and take public transportation or drive in every day. At most universities in the United States, a majority of students live on campus. The difference in the college atmosphere is significant. Typically, living in dorms with other passionate, intellectual students fosters an environment for learning and personal growth. However, at Auckland Uni, I feel extremely disconnected from the rest of the students. I tend to describe the campus feeling as “extended high school”.
  • Auckland Uni has a massive amount of students, and every lecture is in a big lecture hall. My home institution has only 6,500 undergraduate students.
  • The grading system here is a bit different: there’s no curving, so it’s normal to have much lower grades in classes. However, an 80% in a class is typically an A.

STEM Abroad

Yet, as a Computer Engineering major, some of the most striking differences are found in the STEM courses here at Auckland Uni. Because I had to fulfil some requirements, I’m taking an Electrical Engineering course and the dreadful and despised Organic Chemistry course.  Here are a few of the differences:

  • A lab report doesn’t follow a lab session – you do the “lab report” concurrently while doing the lab. In all of my STEM courses at my home school, lab reports were the bulk of the work following a data-collecting lab session.
  • The assigned workload is extremely light; there are only two assignments for the entire semester in my Electrical Engineering course, and there’s barely any assigned work for my Organic chemistry course. In the United States, problem sets and assignments are often weekly!
  • The science and engineering is extremely distant from mathematics. The science and engineering courses are more theory-based, and leave mathematics truly to mathematics courses. Back home, I find some of the hardest mathematical problems in my science and engineering courses.
  • They don’t let you use graphing calculators on tests – you can only use a scientific calculator. A subtle point, but my home school lets my use my graphic calculator, and it was burdensome to have to learn how to use a new calculator.
  • The classes are much more focused on practical applications of STEM. Back at Brown, my STEM courses tend toward theoretical and research situations rather than industry practices.
  • Each topic per course is taught by a different professor that specializes in that topic. My Organic Chemistry course has had 4 different professors. This is distinctly different from most of my courses at Brown, where I usually have one professor.

Adapting to the new environment and learning style that surrounds STEM has been a huge challenge. The biggest challenge has been, to my surprise, succeeding in classes where there are few assignments. David Strout, a fellow student who’s studying abroad here at Auckland Uni, agrees: “I’ve fallen behind because there’s nothing to hold me accountable. And then, when the test or exam comes around, I find myself cramming to understand the material.” The professors have the expectation that you’re practicing the material on your own time and staying caught up. In theory, this sounds great! No homework, and you can learn at whatever pace you want! But, in reality, if you don’t hold yourself accountable, you’ll be cramming and scrambling to learn the material the week before the test.

Adjusting

 

Yet, I’ve greatly appreciated some aspects of STEM abroad. Having 4 different professors in my Organic Chemistry course has been remarkable. Each professor was extremely knowledgeable in the topic that they were teaching, and it was refreshing to learn from a new professor with a different teaching style every few weeks. Furthermore, with the light work load in the courses, I was able to do a lot more outside of academics – from volunteering to extra adventures. Surely, I sacrificed my sanity when tests rolled around, but my grades didn’t suffer from not completing assignments on time or with as much effort as they deserve. Finally, I really enjoyed studying concepts in science and engineering and straying away from mathematics for a semester. It renewed my appreciation because I wasn’t getting frustrated and caught up in calculations. Along with concepts, the emphasis on practical learning and applications to the real world gave me insight to what the industry is like and some tangible knowledge to take to the workforce.

Overall, adapting to a new academic setting was wonderful and challenging. Every school is unique and has a different atmosphere, and escaping your home school allowed me to spend time learning with a completely different experience. I was able to see a glimpse into the lives of the thousands of students that go through university in New Zealand. Furthermore, I was able to experience life in a big university as opposed to my small university. I learned how to be responsible with my learning in a situation where there’s no accountability, and how to learn in an entirely new culture. All of these differences let me learn and grow in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

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Brandon Barry is a Computer Engineering major at Brown University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in Spring of 2017. He is an international correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the First Generation Scholarship program.

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