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Danes find university studies here 'something different'

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 22 - February 28, 1997

Rikke Andersen and Jesper Christensen came to Virginia Tech from Aalborg University in Denmark to learn more about the United States, cleaning up groundwater pollutants, and life and studies at a university that is quite different from their own.

At Tech, the master's degree students from Aalborg are taking classes in environmental engineering and conducting research with Civil Engineering Professor John Novak, whom the Danes met while Novak spent the 1995-1996 academic year as a guest professor at Aalborg.

"We are excited to be at Virginia Tech and in Blacksburg," Andersen said. "The mountains and the scenery are wonderful-Denmark is flat, no mountains-and the people here are very friendly and helpful." It's also interesting to the Danesto live in a small town dominated by a university with 25,000 students; the university at Aalborg has only about 10,000 students, in a city of 150,000 residents.

A major difference between higher education in Denmark and the U.S. is that the Danish government pays tuition and a supplement to room-and-board for all university students, Christensen says.

But the most interesting difference between Aalborg and Tech is the educational format.

Aalborg is one of two universities in Denmark that use project-oriented studies for all undergraduate and graduate education. This experiment in higher education in Denmark began in 1974, when educational policy was a subject of much debate in that nation.

Students in all three of Aalborg University's divisions-humanities, social sciences, and technology and science-conduct their coursework as members of project teams.

As freshmen, Christensen explains, students are assigned to groups of seven or eight to work out their first, semester-long project. Each project team is given its own meeting and work room, because for five months they will spend most of their time out of class researching, analyzing, designing, and solving problems as a team until their project is completed.

After the first semester, the students form teams on their own to conduct assigned projects.

Courses are concentrated in the first half of each semester, and faculty members typically lecture for two hours twice a day on basic concepts related to projects. After each lecture, student teams work with their faculty advisors and teaching assistants in problem-solving sessions. During the second half of the semester, students spend most of their time working in teams to conduct and complete projects.

Engineering students at Virginia Tech and other traditional universities work on various projects from the time they are freshmen, but projects are only part of lecture and laboratory courses. Faculty members typically provide students with project data and goals.

At Aalborg, students must establish their own project goals and research the necessary data themselves. "It's a challenge," Christensen said, "but when we're in the professional world we'll have to work this way. And we'll have to know how to work with other engineers-how to argue our opinions and how to compromise."

"The students at Aalborg are quite good at finding their own information, "Novak said. He also was impressed with the constant report writing and presentation required at Aalborg. "These students are able to do professional reports and presentations when they first begin their engineering jobs."

Teamwork is a major factor in education at Aalborg. Project teams discuss all work-approach methods and make decisions as a group. While team members are responsible for contributing to all aspects of a project, each student also is assigned individual tasks. For example, Andersen said, in a team project on water-treatment-plant operation, one student will find all the necessary data on water clarification and report that information to the group. But every team member must become familiar with all project data and theoretical knowledge.

As components of the project are integrated, each team member must learn to defend and explain the project as a whole, Christensen said. At the end of the semester, student teams present their projects to committees of faculty members. Discussions follow, and faculty members evaluate the knowledge and skills acquired by the students. Each team member is given an individual grade.

"Anyone who would not work as they should on a project-who left the work to other students on the team-would probably flunk for the semester," Andersen said.

"But that is rare," Christensen said. "We are taught to feel responsible-as individuals for the group, and as a group for the individuals."

Andersen and Christensen have conducted projects in water and wastewater treatment, hydrology, highway construction, and other areas. Last year, their team conducted an environmental assessment of resource consumption and pollution at a slaughterhouse. This project was used as a preliminary study for environmental certification of the slaughterhouse.

When Andersen and Christensen met Novak at Aalborg and discovered that one of his research specialties is groundwater remediation (cleanup), they decided to try to spend a school year at Virginia Tech to learn more about the subject. There's a good reason for their desire to learn more about protecting groundwater: it is the source of all of Denmark's drinking water.

Andersen and Christensen are enrolled in courses on remediation of soil and groundwater pollutants and are auditing courses in water and wastewater treatment and geo-environmental engineering. Their research with Novak focuses on intrinsic bioremediation, which is the natural tendency of soil microbes to neutralize a variety of pollutants. Andersen and Christensen are attempting to develop laboratory techniques that can identify and assess signs of intrinsic remediation in soils taken from former military waste sites in Virginia.

"We decided to come to Tech also because we wanted to try something different," says Christensen. "We've been doing group work for four years at Aalborg."

Through traditional courses and homework, engineering students at Tech "learn more facts and more about number crunching," Andersen said. The Danes are impressed with Tech's computer facilities, and note that students here use computers more often for communication via e-mail and for research on the Internet than do students at Aalborg. Andersen and Christensen also like the cooperative education opportunities provided Tech engineering students. Aalborghas no official co-op program, they say, although students are encouraged to find such opportunities.

"Somewhere in between would be good," Christensen said when asked if he prefers Aalborg's project-oriented approach to traditional engineering education. "In fact, the students and faculty at Aalborg are debating the possibility of combining the approaches-keeping some semesters project-oriented and including more lectures and fact-learning in other semesters."

Novak said Tech engineering students would benefit from more team-projectwork. "It would be good to integrate more projects into our curriculum, especially in students' junior and senior years. However, it's an expensive way to educate. Project groups need their own work areas and faculty members have to spend more time with fewer students."

Because students at Aalborg and Tech have so much to teach each other about engineering and education techniques, Novak and the Danes would like to see the two universities develop exchange programs.

In mid-April, when their visas expire, Andersen and Christensen will return to Aalborg and write a thesis based on some of their work at Tech. Do they think they'll return to Blacksburg someday? "We certainly intend to," Andersen said emphatically.