Students, professor take part in first U.S. college course in Myanmar

The streets of Yangon, Myanmar, are jam-packed with cars, and a new Mercedes-Benz dealership has opened. People carry the latest smartphones and tablets.

Electricity is sporadic and unreliable, though. And the city has open sewers.

“It just feels like the place burst open to outside technology all at once; there was no gradual introduction to anything,” said Anne Walker, a Case Western Reserve University master’s student. “It’s an odd combination of high and low tech.”

Zack Scott and Jordan Lajoie, CWRU students, work with students in Myanmar
Zack Scott (second from left) and Jordan Lajoie (far right) work with students and faculty from Yangon Technological University.

Walker, fellow students and professor Dan Lacks experienced firsthand the reopening of Myanmar after 50 years of isolation.

During the last two weeks, they’ve taken part in what the U.S. Department of State is hailing as the first U.S. college course in Myanmar. The country, also called Burma, is surging from 1960s culture into the 21st century, since the military-run government began democratic reforms last year.

When the government held open elections and allowed opposition candidates to take seats in the parliament last year, the actions prompted a visit by President Barack Obama and the United States to lift economic sanctions and promote cultural exchange.

Opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from 15 years of house arrest in 2010, is a leading proponent to revitalize higher education in the country.

“Our university system has almost been destroyed by half-a-century of military rule,” Suu Kyi said in a speech this May. “Campus life ceased to exist several decades ago, and the standard of our university education has fallen so low… We have to learn from everybody because we have fallen so far behind.”

Tint Swe Latt, rector of University of Medicine 2, Yangon, summed it up when talking to a reporter from Science magazine: “For the past 50 years, we had a closed-door policy.”

Evident need

CWRU and Yangon students pose in front of the university
The entire group of U.S. and Yangon participants pose in front of the university.

Lacks, the C. Benson Branch Professor of Chemical Engineering, proposed the class through the State Department’s Fulbright Specialist Program, after helping to train faculty at Yangon Technological University this summer. He was the first U.S. engineering professor involved in that effort.

He found that all of the faculty had been educated in Burma/Myanmar and were unfamiliar with university education outside their country. They still relied on paper and pencil to solve engineering problems, just as they had in 1962, when the military toppled the government.

A typical undergraduate in their system takes eight courses each semester, spending 30 hours per week in lectures. That’s a stark contrast to the typical U.S. course load of four classes and 15 hours in the classroom weekly, Lacks said. And in the Myanmar engineering curriculum, there is no attempt to develop communication skills or a broader perspective through courses in the humanities.  Classes are very traditional: the instructor lectures and the students take notes.

“That showed me how important international exposure is,” Lacks said.

CWRU and Yangon participants at a soccer game
U.S. participants got the opportunity to experience the culture beyond the classroom, attending the Myanmar vs. Timor-Leste soccer match in the SEA Games.

The new course has been based at Yangon Technological University (YTU), one of several national universities shuttered in the 1990s after campus protests against the regime were violently crushed.

Lacks, 12 Master’s of Engineering Management students from Case Western Reserve and a John Carroll University student teamed up with faculty and master’s students from Myanmar in an intensive two-week peer-learning class titled International Engineering Entrepreneurship.

“This is an exciting time for entrepreneurship in Myanmar,” Lacks said. “Many years of sanctions prohibiting U.S. and European Union investment in Myanmar had left the country void of services and products that are a common part of life everywhere else, such as credit cards, bank machines and Coca-Cola.”

A learning exchange

Meng Li, a Case Western Reserve student, was impressed by the resourcefulness of the engineering he saw there, termed “bricolage,” which essentially means to exploit the resources at hand.

He found an example on the street. Instead of building a new frame for a three-wheel bicycle to haul materials, the bike maker had used a traditional bike, attached a cart to the side and added a third bicycle wheel on the outside of the cart.

“This design is very useful to local people who may not afford a car or a three-wheel motorcycle but need the load-carrying function,” Li said.

On a typical day, the students spent the morning in the classroom at YTU. In a change from Myanmar traditions, they broke into small teams with students from the host country and visited factories and offices of Myanmar and U.S. businesses there, learning how they operate, their challenges and successes. The teams returned and made presentations about what they saw and heard to the full class.

“The whole idea of active learning is something they don’t know,” Lacks said. “I believe you really learn best by doing.”

Ambassador Mitchell with CWRU and Yangon students
CWRU and Yangon representatives (including Professor Dan Lacks, front row, second from left) greet Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell.

U.S. Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell called the class a first when he visited them this week.

“We haven’t been able to do this for a generation, to have American and Myanmar students in the same room learning from each other,“ Mitchell said.

“Having an exchange of this type—this is really pioneering,” Mitchell continued.  “We have to build on what we started.  It’s not enough to simply have one event and then leave it. We have to figure out how we can build on the groundwork we laid.”

Lacks and the students hope they will be able to do just that. They’ve seen opportunities for social and business entrepreneurship and what Walker described as a staggering opportunity to bring higher education up to the levels the country enjoyed in the years before it closed its doors.