Planet Duke: Engineers in Germany

February 25, 2014

Wall flowers: David Lang (left) and Tony Fierro lean against the East Side Gallery, a memorialized section of the Berlin Wall. Photo by Maryana Nikolin.

For an engineering student facing strict course requirements, it can be hard to squeeze in a semester abroad. The spring semester of Duke in Berlin, however, enables engineers to experience a foreign country while staying on track with their academics—thanks to collaboration among the PrattSchool of Engineering, the German studies department, and the Global Education Office. “It was a victory on our side to coordinate schools that don’t normally work together at that level of curriculum,” says William Donahue, academic director of Duke in Berlin and chair of Duke’s German studies department.

“The challenging part was that you weren’t simply taking engineering courses,” recalls junior Erick Lowe, who traveled with the program last year. “You had to be able to learn the language before you could learn the engineering.” Pratt students arrive in Germany one month early for intensive language and cultural preparation, which gives them the foreign vocabulary they’ll need to survive at Technische Universität. there, they take classes taught entirely in German, rightalong with native students. While some students arrive with little or no foreign language background, ultimately they perform “amazingly well in these courses,” reports Donahue.

Beyond the classroom, students visit engineering marvels such as the BMW plant and the Deutsches Museum, theworld’s largest museum of science and technology. they also tour historical sites such as the Buchenwald concentration camp and the city of Leipzig, the birthplace of protests that initiated the fall of communism in eastern europe. While living with German host families, students discover the artistic bounty of Berlin, from grand opera houses and hip music venues to world-class museums and quirky street art. Other opportunities include attending the Berlin Philharmonic as well as the famed Berlinale, an international film festival second only to Cannes. 

“We want to promote opportunities for our students to immerse themselves in a different culture so they can become more globally aware citizens,” says Linda Franzoni M.S. ’88, Ph.D. ’91 associate dean at Pratt.

Key Duke Connections:

Founded in 1988—before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Duke in Berlin is one of several programs that accommodate engineers. Others include Duke in Madrid.

Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library includes a rare manuscript of treatments and remedies for various ailments written by an unknown seventeenth-century German physician.

The Nasher Museum boasts two pieces of influential artwork by German-Swiss expressionist painter Paul Klee, Bauchtanz and Ausgang.

The German department has a full-size cardboard cutout of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that, when not looming over department offices, is used in student plays. 

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.