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Students Head to Spring Break for a Different Kind of Sand, Water

One student group's Spring break this week involves sand and water, but it won't include the revelry that's normally associated with this annual rite of college.

A band of eight Penn State students in ENGR 497C "Leadership and Innovation For Meeting 21st Century Water Resource Challenges" has journeyed to Morocco on a mission to close a cultural divide and understand the role water plays in Arabic society.

Richard Schuhmann, the course's instructor and head of the engineering leadership development minor, said, "My primary goal is to get American engineers and Arab engineers together to look at global problems."

The weeklong workshop in Rabat brings together Penn Staters with their student counterparts from Morocco's Ecole Mohammadia d'Ingenieurs to study leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship in the context of water resource management.

Brandon Groff, a student in the College of Information Science and Technology, signed up for the trip hoping someday to be an international leader. "I believe globalization is coming whether we like it or not," said the senior from Martinsdale, in Lancaster County.

Schuhmann developed the course and workshop with help from 25 years worth of contacts and connections he's made in his travels to Morocco and other parts of the Middle East. The class is what he terms "service learning."

As part of the workshop, the students will learn about historic trans-border water issues, current technology for water treatment and future global water resource challenges.

Though oil has been given most of the press as a declining resource, Schuhmann believes water will overshadow it. "I can go for two weeks without gas, but I can't go that long without water," he explained. "To me, water is going to be the most critical problem in the 21st century."

Since the start of the semester, Schuhmann has been teaching the students about Moroccan culture as well as demystifying Western stereotypes of Arabs.

Schuhmann's lessons include nonverbal communication (it's rude to point the sole of your shoe to someone), cultural norms (it's perfectly normal for heterosexual men to hold hands) and religion (Jesus plays a major role in the Islamic faith and is prominently mentioned in the Koran). The students also learned basic conversational Moroccan Arabic in preparation for the trip.

For mechanical engineering senior Jonathan Weidner, it will be the first time the Mifflinburg native will leave the country.

"We live sheltered lives here while in other parts of the world water is a major concerns," he said. "We take a lot of things for granted, like clean water from a faucet."

When the students get to Morocco, they'll each stay with host families for the duration of the experience.

Groff, a Mennonite who also will be leaving the United States for the first time, said he's very cognizant of the fact he's representing America in his travels. "I'm the face of this university, the face of this state and the face of this country," he said. "What they know of us they see in places like Al-Jazeera, so the bar for us is set pretty low."

Many of the students have been working on ways to dispel stereotypes Moroccans have of the West. In addition to his Arabic language classes, Weidner created a series of Arabic flash cards for himself.

"I want to show them that we care and are trying," Weidner explained.

Funding for the course and trip came from Roberts Filter Group, General Electric and Dow Chemical.

Andrew Gillott, a mechanical engineering senior and student in the engineering leadership minor, said, "I think I'll come back with an appreciation for what I have as well as an appreciation of Arab culture."

In the end, Schuhmann believes the Moroccan experience will be more than just a week-long trip taken during spring break. "I'm hoping this course starts a process for students," he said.


3/16/2007

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