From UC Davis to Hanoi: Ambitious team teaching

Also published in Engineering Progress, Fall 2014

UC Davis professors often accept assignments as visiting instructors at universities across the country, or even throughout the world: sometimes just for a week or two, perhaps even for a quarter or an entire academic year.

Vietnamese engineering students are training with the help of an "Agreement of Cooperation" between the UC Davis College of Engineering and the Hanoi University of Mining

Vietnamese engineering students are training with the help of an “Agreement of Cooperation” between the UC Davis College of Engineering and the Hanoi University of Mining and Geology.

Rarely, however, has a “guest lecturer” program been proposed — let alone embraced — at a scale comparable to what currently involves the UC Davis Department of Chemical Engineering. Indeed, the ongoing “Agreement of Cooperation” between our College of Engineering and Vietnam’s Hanoi University of Mining and Geology could be unprecedented. In every significant sense, UC Davis faculty have been asked to replicate their chemical engineering curriculum for Hanoi University students, while also teaching this material — in English — at an accelerated pace.

Previous agreements of cooperation have teamed UC Davis with Vietnam’s Nong Lam University, Hanoi’s University of Agriculture, and the National Institute for Agricultural Planning and Protection.

The program unofficially began in the summer of 2010, with the arrival of a delegation that included Tran Dinh Kien, rector of the Hanoi University of Mining and Geology; Nguyen Anh Dzung, chair of the campus’ Department of Oil Refining and Petrochemistry; and Nguyen Quang Minh, head of the International Cooperation Office. Their university had received funds from Vietnam’s Ministry of Education, to create a program in chemical engineering, with a curriculum presented in English. Wanting to model this program on one in the U.S., they selected UC Davis and contacted Robert Powell, then chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

“It’s not uncommon for faculty members to visit, say, a university in Thailand to teach a course or two,” Powell admits, “but I’m not familiar with anything quite like this. We really are delivering the chemical engineering part of their university curriculum, and at least 75 percent of the courses are being taught by our faculty.

“That’s quite amazing, and it’ll continue for at least another couple of years.”

“This is being driven, at least in part, by Vietnam’s huge demand for professionals, especially in the petro-chemical industries” adds Ahmet Palazoglu, a professer and past chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “They want people who will be fluent in English, and who will be familiar with state-of-the-art tools. They see this program as a means of providing that work force.

“They proposed to model their program — Advanced Chemical Engineering — precisely after our curriculum, despite the fact that we’re on a quarter system, and they’re on a semester system. They sent several faculty members to us, to observe how we teach our courses. They then examined all of our freshman and sophomore courses, to determine which ones they could teach themselves, and asked for our help in developing and teaching all the upper-division courses, along with a few lower-division courses.”

The result is an intimate collaboration on an impressive scale. The initial Ministry of Education grant runs for five years, and is likely to be extended for an additional two years. Brightly colored posters mounted at Hanoi University promise students that “Together we can make your future become brighter,” thanks to this collaboration with UC Davis, “one of the most prestigious universities in the United States.” Annual scholarship opportunities come from Petrolimex, the PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corp. (PVEP), Perenco, Petronas, Schlumberger Ltd. and ConocoPhillips, among other petrochemical and energy corporations.

The UC Davis/Hanoi program formally began in 2011 with the first crop of freshmen, who are expected to graduate in June 2015. The average class size was 25 students that first year, but interest has increased as the program’s value has been recognized; the most recent freshman classes contain 50-55 students. The extremely competitive program demands a lot of its students, starting with a six-month crash course in English that precedes the CE curriculum.

UC Davis Chemical Engineering faculty who have taught in the program include Powell, Palazoglu, Pieter Stroeve, Tonya Kuhl, Nael El-Farra, James Shackelford, Klaus van Benthem and Brian Higgins.

Powell and Palazoglu make no secret of one key long-term goal.

“Some of the classes have true superstars, and we’re trying hard to recruit them for graduate school here at UC Davis,” Palazoglu admits. “We’ve established a solid foundation at the undergraduate level during these first three years, but Hanoi University also wants to collaborate at the graduate level, to boost their research profile. They want to send some of their students here, to get PhDs and then return to teach in their own country. And for out part, we’d love to get some of those post-graduate students.”