Case School of Engineering leads program to help rebuild Iraqi higher education

After decades of underinvestment and isolation, the Iraqi higher education system suffered even further during the Iraq War. Now, eight Iraqi engineering faculty members have come to Case Western Reserve University to learn first-hand how they can reshape their universities and contribute to rebuilding their country.

The scholars arrived on campus this summer as part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program for Iraq, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Members of the Case School of Engineering applied to host the scholars to add to the international nature of campus, to broaden the outlook of CWRU students and to assist the Iraqi scholars in rebuilding their education system, said Dan Lacks, professor of chemical engineering and organizer of the program.

After an extensive application process, a panel composed of representatives from the U.S. Department of State and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars selected Case Western Reserve’s engineering school to host the scholars. Three similar programs are taking place at other universities on topics such as science, linguistics and agriculture, but Case School of Engineering’s is the only engineering program selected, Lacks said.

The purpose of the Iraqis’ visit, he explained, is to observe and engage in both educational and cultural experiences.

“They’re really interesting people, persevering through difficult circumstances and trying to make Iraq a better place through the universities,” Lacks said.

On campus, the Iraqi faculty are learning modern teaching methods from faculty members such as Mike Kenney, a senior instructor of chemistry known for his interactive teaching style. Kenney has been leading  the scholars in a weekly workshop on topics such as student engagement, learning styles and technology. Of particular focus for Kenney is teaching them to interact with students, rather than resorting to the traditional one-way lecture the Iraqi higher education system has relied upon for years.

“The faculty from Iraq have been very involved in every discussion and have expressed strong interest in similarities and differences between their home institution and CWRU,” Kenney said.

Now that school is back in session, the Iraqis have an opportunity to practice their recently learned teaching skills to use by assisting Case Western Reserve faculty with a few fall courses before they depart in mid-September.

In addition, the Iraqi faculty members have been paired with mentors in different engineering departments at CWRU to conduct laboratory research.

“It was impressive for me to see the enormous progress that has been made in various scientific fields and the research facilities and sophisticated equipment in Case Western Reserve University, which is not available in my university in Baghdad or anywhere else in Iraq,” said one of the Iraqi faculty members. (The scholars will not be named because of concerns about their safety in their home nation.)

Beyond academics, the program’s other goal is to allow the scholars to experience American culture. This emphasis includes everything from meeting local mayors to visiting shopping malls. University students have accompanied them on outings to area museums, while faculty and staff have welcomed them into their homes for dinners or taken them on a variety of other outings: a children’s baseball game, an Olympics viewing party and an outdoor concert, to name a few.

“The idea is just to see typical life that people here take part in every day,” Lacks said.

Geneviève Sauvé, assistant professor of chemistry, and her husband, Michael Lewicki, associate professor of computer science, invited the scholars to their 11-year-old son’s end-of-summer band concert at a local park. While exploring the area on the way to and from the park, the Iraqi faculty members were intrigued by many sights. But they were especially fascinated by an indoor ice skating rink, so the couple invited them back out a few weeks later for a skating lesson.

“Being in Iraq, it’s a desert out there, so the concept of ice—and skating on ice—just doesn’t exist,” Sauvé said.

But just as Sauvé and Lewicki opened the scholars’ eyes to new experiences, the scholars taught the CWRU faculty members something as well.

“We asked them a lot about Iraq and their customs, their way of doing things,” Sauvé said, noting that visiting professors were very open about the political turmoil in the country and their difficult working conditions. For example, she said, their power goes out unexpectedly and regularly—up to 20 times per day. Lacks recounted stories from the scholars on the struggles they face simply getting to work each day, such as bombs going off along their bus routes or, more typically, a 20-minute drive taking two hours because of stops for police checkpoints every mile or so.

“It was very interesting for me to work in a safe and stable environment, and to experience the advantages of a normal life that is taken for granted in other countries,” one of the faculty members noted.

“The Fulbright program is a good opportunity to bridge the chasm that has developed between our country and the rest of the developed world, which hopefully will not take forever,” another said. “I am delighted to be a part of this awesome challenge.”