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Science and Engineering Abroad

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Every weekday morning, the University of Auckland campus inflates with over 30,000 students. Eight hours later, the campus shrinks when 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 and the STEM courses at University of Auckland were a big shock, and it tested my abilities to adapt to something entirely different.

A New Education System

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:

  • In New Zealand, Most undergraduate students specialized toward the end of high school, and students tend to graduate college in three years. American degrees tend to take four 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!
  • The University of Auckland 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 the University of Auckland, I feel extremely disconnected from the rest of the students. I tend to describe the campus feeling as “extended high school”.
  • The University of Auckland 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.
Study STEM in Auckland

STEM Courses at University of Auckland

Yet, as a Computer Engineering major, some of the most striking differences are found in the STEM courses at University of Auckland. Because I had to fulfill 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 was barely any assigned work for my Organic chemistry course. In contrast with the United States, where 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 difficult 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 four different professors. This is distinctly different from most of my courses at Brown, where I usually only have one professor.

The Challenges and Benefits

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 University of Auckland 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.

However, I’ve greatly appreciated some aspects of STEM courses at University of Auckland. Having four 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 from not trying as hard as maybe I should have. Finally, I really enjoyed studying concepts in science and engineering and straying away from mathematics for a semester. It renewed my appreciation for them 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 my home school allowed me to spend time learning through 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 at a big university as opposed to my small school. I learned how to be responsible with my learning in a situation where there’s little accountability. , and how to learn . All of these differences,  that emerged from studying in an entirely new culture, let me learn and grow in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

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 a blog writer for IFSA-Butler through the First Generation Scholarship program.