Study abroad proves challenging for science students

Thursday, March 22, 2007

About 500 Brown students study abroad every year – but for many who are studying sciences, arranging a semester or year abroad can be a complicated task, since science students have more rigid requirements and often have to take courses in sequence.

“We consider science students underrepresented” in study abroad programs, said Samantha Brandauer, assistant director of the Office of International Programs. That shortage of science students is “always a topic of discussion,” she said, adding that the OIP works with science professors to iron out details for students.

English-speaking study abroad programs are the most popular programs for science students, who tend to go to Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark, Brandauer said. “They need to have a pretty full curriculum open to them,” she said.

“Of the 567 students who studied abroad in 2005-2006, 14 (percent) were in physical and health sciences and 1 (percent) were engineering,” Brandauer wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Biology concentrators make up most of the science students who study abroad. Over the past three years, 40 biology concentrators studied abroad, according to data from the OIP. Over the same period, only two physics concentrators studied abroad.

Ashley Pariser ’08, a biology concentrator, spent the fall semester studying in Paris. Planning the semester “definitely took some organization,” she said – for instance, she had to rearrange her organic chemistry sequence to go, taking CH 35: “Organic Chemistry” last spring and waiting until next fall to take CH 36: “Organic Chemistry,” the next course in the required sequence.

To find a university that fit her interest in science, Pariser said she talked to a Brown in France adviser who recommended a science university in Paris.

Brandauer said the OIP would like to give “faculty the tools” to enable students to go abroad. Science faculty “can let us know what programs are a good fit for their students,” she said.

The office has a guide for science students explaining their options for studying abroad, but the information hasn’t been updated in several years, Brandauer said. The office is currently working with a student to get an updated guide published by the end of the summer.

Brandauer said the OIP would like to organize its online database of study abroad programs by concentration to make it easier for students to know what their options are.

In addition to adding resources for science students, the OIP is also working to dispel the myth that science students – particularly engineers – can’t go abroad. “That kind of stuff is hard to control,” Brandauer said.

One way OIP can battle that myth is by encouraging students to start looking at study abroad programs early in their time at Brown, she said. With studying abroad in mind, students can take courses at the right time so their schedules are flexible enough to allow for studying abroad. The “earlier they start looking at (studying abroad), the better,” Brandauer said.

Engineering concentrator Natalie Johnson ’08 went to Dresden, Germany, during the spring of her sophomore year. In the program she chose, “all of the classes were already approved,” she said.

“The hardest part is finding a program that fits,” she said, adding that the process was made easier by the fact that other students from Brown had already completed the program in which she participated.

In general, Brandauer said, it is important to have communication among the OIP, students and faculty. “Brown is a great climate to do study abroad,” Brandauer said, adding that the faculty is supportive of students who take that option.