Tim Heidel, an MIT student who spent his junior year at Cambridge University in England, says that having a world-class experience in another country was the most expanding event of his life. “I realized if you can better connect and better communicate with people across the globe, you sure can help a lot of people,” says Heidel, a recent grad who studied electrical engineering and computer science.

Tim was so inspired by his first international experience that when the school year ended, he organized seven students from schools on three continents to spend two months in Ghana, where the group identified engineering problems in the rural areas.

The students traveled to north and south Ghana, talked to community members through interpreters, and identified 12 engineering problems that affect people in those communities, including water scarcity, bad roads and cracking buildings.

“Engineering can be so different depending on how you approach it,” he says. “Discovering the perspectives of a diverse group was really quite powerful.”

Thanks to Heidel’s efforts, scores of students across the U.K. and the U.S. are now working to develop solutions to these problems. And next summer, he says, there will be prototypes ready for testing.

Heidel, who grew up in Mahopac, New York, says that before he went to Cambridge, “I never thought about being an American. But for the first time in my life, I became aware of how being an American fits into the wider world.”

Also, he says, the international experience sparked in him a desire to learn about people in other countries. He has since traveled to several European cities, and next he plans to visit Southeast Asia, Australia, and South America.

“To experience different cultures, meet people around the globe, and hear different perspectives, is really a great benefit,” he says. “But the most valuable part of the program, was making friends –– not only personal friends but international friends. What is amazing is that we were actually building partnerships between countries.”

World-class Exchange

The Cambridge-MIT Exchange program (CME) is an undergraduate student exchange that provides MIT and Cambridge University students a chance to swap places for a year; 14 MIT departments, including all major science and engineering departments, participate.

The program was one of the first initiatives of the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), which was established in 2000 as a strategic partnership between two of the world’s leading universities. MIT and Cambridge annually exchange about 75 third-year students. So far, 350 students have participated in the program.

The project is creating world citizens, says Peggy Enders, associate dean for undergraduate education, who directs the program at MIT. “An MIT education enables students to assume leadership roles in a global society, so MIT must promote exposure to other countries and cultures. Educated individuals can no longer afford to be isolated from the rest of the world.”

MIT students are often surprised by the educational differences at Cambridge, where there are no graded problem sets, quizzes, or tests. Just a major exam at the end. Students attend weekly lectures and a bi-weekly small-group meeting with an instructor, but otherwise, they learn the material on their own at their own pace.

“The learning culture at Cambridge is more relaxed than at MIT but not less rigorous. Students don’t learn less, they just have to teach themselves more,” Enders says, adding that also different for MIT students at Cambridge is that they study only subjects in their major.

“For them, it’s like jumping into the deep end of a pool,” she says, adding that a big benefit is that MIT students improve their study and time management skills, as well as enjoy a bit more balance in their lives.

Cambridge students at MIT say they love the amount of help available to them and also love learning material that draws on real-world applications. In addition, they enjoy studying subjects outside their major. But many Cambridge students are surprised by the relentless workload at MIT. Enders says: “It’s hard to prepare Cambridge students for the amount of graded work expected of them each week. It often takes them the whole first term to adjust.”

One Cambridge student explains: “At Cambridge, I always try to celebrate my birthday by taking the day off…At MIT, I looked up from my problem set in the middle of the night and realized it was my birthday.”

Enders says: “We’re learning from Cambridge and Cambridge is learning from us, and it’s the students who are showing us the way. That’s what makes the program so exciting.”