Mens et Manus Around the World

MechE Faculty Guide Cross-Cultural Interest in Replicating Teaching and Research


By Alissa Mallinson

Travel to China, Russia, United Arab Emirates, or Saudi Arabia, and it shouldn’t take too long to feel like you’re right back at MIT.

That’s because each of these nations houses at least one – in some cases, more than one – MIT-based education or research institution. Some of these partnerships go back a long way, while others have been freshly formed, but they all have roots in the MIT spirit of global cooperation, creation, and innovation.

The MIT-SUTD Collaboration is a recent partnership, focused on education and directed by MechE’s Professor John Brisson, while The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) stems from an old friendship with Singapore that originally began with a distance learning setup at MIT for students in Singapore. Nowadays, SMART is focused entirely on research, entrepreneurship, and post-doctorate education. From 2008 to 2012, MechE Department Head Emeritus Rohan Abeyaratne directed the program, which includes five tracks in infectious disease, environmental sensing and monitoring, biosystems and micro mechanics, transportation, and low-energy electronics.

Among the roughly 60 MIT faculty members involved in SMART are several MechE faculty, including Professors Nicholas Patrikalakis, Michael Triantyfallou, George Barbasthatis, Roger Kamm, Harry Asada, Peter So, Yang Shao-Horn, Evelyn Wang, and Tonio Buonassisi. For faculty, the SMART campus provides many unique research opportunities that don’t exist in the US – for example access to clinical data on malaria – as well as new custom-built labs with state-of-the-art facilities.


Professor Patrikalakis in Singapore as part of SMART.

“SMART is a very lively place,” says Professor Abeyaratne, “because of the dynamism the MIT faculty bring into the mix with their signature entrepreneurial spirit and because of the deep collaborations that have been built with faculty from Singapore’s universities and research labs.”

Even before SMART, MechE was sharing its well oiled pedagogical processes and research projects with KFUPM, through a partnership led by Professor John Lienhard, director of the Center for Clean Water and Energy at MIT and KFUPM.

With the help of Professors Warren Seering, Kamal Youcef-Toumi, and Maria Yang, Professor David Wallace, a highly regarded ambassador for active learning in engineering education, spearheaded an educational transfer to KFUPM, helping to develop a curriculum there that focuses on making and doing, hosting faculty workshops that teach its faculty how to motivate students, designing individual hands-on engineering classes similar to MechE’s 2.007 and 2.009, and setting up physical labs, among other things.

“Transferring culture is tricky,” says Professor Wallace. “Wherever you are, you need to be aware of what the culture is and what the norms are, and respect them. But beyond that, people are people. They like enjoying themselves, so if you’re having fun, they’ll have fun too. The desire to learn, accomplish, and realize your own ideas are universal, so I’ve found that very different cultures can still have a lot in common.”


Professor Wallace (in white) stands with faculty from KFUPM.

A crucial element of success with these programs has been face time, he says, not just initially, but continuously. Professor Wallace – who spends about one month every year in Saudi Arabia, having already shared his style of teaching with more than 150 KFUPM faculty – understood from the onset that he wasn’t just transferring a particular concept – in many ways they already had that covered – but rather a new style of learning, and teaching.

“It’s more about transferring the educational experience than the topics you teach,” says Wallace. “Dropping our ideas off at the door and then leaving would not be very impactful, just as it’s not impactful to do when you’re developing technologies for emerging markets. Working with faculty in their context and following up is critical. Your time together allows you to convey not only how to get things done but also the attitude and ethics that make MIT what it is, and in turn to understand how that will fit into their context.”