URI engineering camp builds bridges among students from India, Pakistan, Providence

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 28, 2015 – For the high school students who attended the University of Rhode Island’s four-week Building Bridges engineering camp this month, the engineering lessons and robot activities were almost secondary to the relationships they built. And that was the point of the Building camp that drew equal numbers of students from India, Pakistan and Providence to the Kingston campus in July.

Funded by the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, the camp was part of what URI Engineering Professor Manbir Sodhi calls the “people-to-people effort” the U.S. State Department is encouraging among people from different countries.

“It’s not easy for students from India and Pakistan to get together in their own countries,” said Sodhi, the camp’s organizer. “The fact that they are doing so on neutral territory here in Rhode Island is extraordinary. And life changing.

“It’s also not so easy for students from Providence to interact with students from outside the U.S.,” he added, “so they benefitted greatly from the experience as well.”

Anvi Kaushik from Delhi, India, was nominated by her principal to apply to attend the camp because of her aptitude for science and a desire to make new friends. She says she likes to know how things around her work, and she hopes to eventually work in an environmental discipline.

“I’m going to be very sad when we have to say goodbye to everyone,” Kaushik said on the last day of the camp. “We started out knowing so little about each other’s culture, and we weren’t used to the environment here, but it widened our horizons. We built friendships, and it’s so sad that it’s ending.”

Maria Gulzar from Islamabad, Pakistan, was also encouraged by her principal to apply. She enjoys biology, chemistry and math, and she is considering an engineering career for a humanitarian agency.

“This has been the perfect program for me,” she said. “It’s all about connecting with the professors and the students. And it is helping me choose what I want to study when I become an undergrad.”

Both students said their favorite part of the program was the social interactions among the students, as well as the field trips to the Rhode Island School of Design, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, New York, and Newport.

They also learned a great deal about engineering. Every morning they attended an engineering lecture by a URI faculty member or a visitor from another institution. The students spent the rest of each day working in teams – one student from each country per team – on engineering projects, including construction of a working trebuchet, a mechanized Lego car, and a device to keep ice from melting.

Sodhi said he planned the camp as a cultural exchange so the students could see that “they’re just regular kids,” regardless of what country they come from.

“And the engineering helped to convey that, too,” said the URI professor, who also organizes a Summer Engineering Academy for high school students each year. “There is no kind of cultural conflict in an engineering project. The issues are clear; they aren’t controversial.”

Providence resident Tatiana Hall, who has already learned some engineering at the Providence Career and Technical School, enjoyed getting her first taste of college life, living in a sorority, and making new friends.

“I got to bond with everyone, and we learned to work together as one big group,” said Hall, who aspires to become a biomedical engineer. “And since it took place during Ramadan, I learned so much about the Indian and Pakistan culture and their views on everything. It was epic. It opened my eyes to different points of view.

“We all became really close,” she concluded. “I made a bunch of friends, and I learned a lot about engineering.”

Pictured above:

Students from India, Pakistan and Providence work together on hands-on engineering projects at the University of Rhode Island’s Building Bridges engineering camp. (Photos courtesy of Manbir Sodhi.)