SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in China

FY19 President of the Society of Women Engineers Penny Wirsing shares her experiences at a Women in Engineering Symposium in China.
SWE Participates in Women in Engineering Symposium in China

Several members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, participated in a SINO-US Women in Engineering Symposium April 23-25, 2018 in Shanghai. As a co-sponsor of the event, SWE organized the entire US contingent of participants and helped develop the content for the program. SWE would also like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for its generous grant that supported the US contingent.

The objectives of the symposium were to provide a forum for cross-cultural exchange of insights and ideas on cultivating greater participation of women in engineering, forge a path forward to develop future joint programs, and showcase innovative work and research of women leaders in the global engineering community. Penny Wirsing, FY18 President-Elect shares her thoughts on the event.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in China
Penny Wirsing on the plane

On Saturday, April 21, I left Los Angeles for Shanghai. I had been looking forward to this trip for weeks, getting the necessary visa, making all the preparations and trying to learn a few Mandarin phrases. (Many thanks to Rebecca Wheeler, SWE’s Manager of Global Programs, who was absolutely invaluable in helping with all the arrangements for this trip, from the visa to the hotels to cultural norms!) The flight to Shanghai was 13 hours and 6680 miles. That’s a long time to stay entertained… I watched a couple movies and a few episodes of Last Week Tonight and had dinner… and still had 6 hours to go. A couple more movies and a few crossword and Sudoku puzzles later, I finally landed at 3:30 Sunday afternoon (12:30 am in LA). After ~30 minutes to taxi and another ~30 minutes to get through customs, I caught the free shuttle (right where Rebecca said it would be) to the nearby Ramada.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in China
Safety card

I checked into the hotel ~5:00 pm. The weather was muggy and overcast, ~80 degrees, and I have to say that washing my face after the long trip felt wonderful! I met up with Karen Horting, SWE Executive Director, and Peter Finn, Deputy Executive Director, for dinner in the hotel a bit later. The food was great - Peking duck, soup dumplings, fried rice, sweet & sour beef. We turned in pretty early, around 8:30, and slept well for about 9 hours.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaWe all met around 9 am Monday for a quick shuttle back to the airport. The flight on Hainan Airlines was great, with little comforters and pillows and a great lunch… it’s too bad it was only a 2 hours flight! Though it was muggy when we left Shanghai, it was quite a bit cooler in Changsha. We were met at the airport by some of the students from Central South University and a cool sign welcoming us!

Changsha has a population of almost 8 million people. For perspective, the greater Los Angeles area is ~13 million, so Changsha is huge! It took ~40 minutes to get to the hotel, and I took note that turn signals and lane markers were really just suggestions, with everyone weaving in and out continuously. And in spite of my familiarity with LA traffic, I was really surprised I saw no crashes or dented fenders!

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaThe symposium participants stayed at the Jinmao Luxury Collection Hotel at Meixi Lake. It was a new, very upscale facility and my room on the39thfloor had quite the view. Unfortunately it was overcast and/or poor air quality both days so I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the panoramic views.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaWhen I started getting ready for the opening dinner I couldn’t find my toiletry bag, which meant (a) I had no bobby pins so I couldn’t wear my hair up for dinner as I had planned, and (b) I had no deodorant with me… I managed to do something acceptable with my hair, and learned a lesson to keep a couple extra bobby pins in a variety of places for future emergencies. After dinner the hotel concierge called the Ramada in Shanghai for me. They had found my bag, so we arranged to pick it up when we returned to Shanghai on Wednesday. In the interim I found a shop nearby that carried deodorant, but they didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have cash… fortunately I ran into one of the SWE folks who loaned me a few yuan, so I was all set to face the world again!

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaThe opening dinner Monday night was attended by the 17 US delegates and about the same number of Chinese delegates from the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and Central South University (CSU), as well as a couple Party Committee representatives. CSU boasts ~60,000 students on several campuses around Changsha, evidently the result of recent consolidation of several smaller universities. Speeches were made, including one from me as SWE’s President-Elect thanking all the Chinese and US delegates. Thank goodness for the translator who converted the Chinese speeches to English and vice versa. My ears really perked up at a comment made by Chen Xiang, Professor and Vice President at CSU, who called out SWE as “leaders in the field”. How cool is that?! SWE is recognized literally around the worldas leaders in women engineering!

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaSWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaWe had really cool name placards at our tables, with English on one side and Mandarin on the other. The meal consisted of at least 20 courses, some a bit spicy but not too much so for my taste.  There were lots of meats and dishes I couldn’t identify. As I was putting the first bite in my mouth, I overheard someone explaining it was pig snout. Well, when in Rome… One of my favorites was an appetizer of tiny deep fried whole fishes. One of the more memorable dishes was “stinky tofu” – that’s the literal translation! It’s reportedly a favorite of Chairman Mao who grew up in Hunan Province. I will tell you that is definitely an acquired taste!

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaTuesday morning we enjoyed a fabulous buffet breakfast in the hotel and boarded a bus to CSU ~7:50 am. It was just SO COOL as we pulled onto the campus, with banners all along the streets leading to the CSU Lecture Hall, and a HUGE sign in front of the building. The entire delegation was treated like royalty. Karen and I were seated on the stage along with several dignitaries for the first 30-40 minutes for some opening speeches, including the Director of International Cooperation Bureau of CAE, the Deputy Director of Education for Hunan Province, the Deputy Director of Hunan Provincial Science & Technology, and of course our very own Karen Horting! We took a break to have a group photo taken in front of the building, and I found it most impressive that they were able to get a group of over 100 people organized and photographed in only a few minutes.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in China
Penny Wirsing speaking

We returned to be seated in the auditorium for the keynote talks from both US and Chinese delegates, which were translated simultaneously via headsets we each wore. Some presentations included both English and Mandarin on their slides, which made following along much easier. Topics included:

  • Ecological Civilization and Green Development
  • Meeting the Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century
  • Improving Higher Engineering Education in the New Era
  • NAE Grand Challenges and How to Prepare Students

Based on the number of words spoken by some compared to the number of words translated, I’m thinking we missed some things in translation, but for the most part it all worked incredibly well.

For lunch we took our bus to another CSU campus, this one full of beautiful brick buildings and lush gardens. Because the audience for lunch was larger and different from the prior evening, I gave my same speech again, modified to include the exchange of gifts among SWE, CAE and CSU. Lunch was very similar to the 20-course dinner we had the prior night, only without the stinky tofu (thank goodness!)

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in China
Peter Finn (Left) and Karen Horting

After lunch we walked across campus to another hall for the afternoon, where additional presentations were given by both US and Chinese delegates. Some of the topics included:

  • Challenges in Public Health in China
  • Innovation in Science, Technology and Technology Transfer
  • Ethical Implications of Engineering Advancements
  • Impacts of Engineering on Chinese Agriculture
  • Role of Disruptive Technologies in Traditional Engineering Practices

There were some really great topics covered and so much information being shared, it was unfortunate that we ran out of time for Q&A.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaWe took the bus back to the hotel and had about an hour to freshen up and meet for a quick reception before getting back on the bus to the Changsha Concern Hall for the CSU Student “Voice of Spring” symphony concert. The music was incredibly impressive, particularly considering all of the performers are students at the university. It included a 70-person orchestra, several dozen vocalists as well as a soloist, and even several ballet dancers for one piece. Despite the remarkable performance, it had been a long day and many folks were still working through the change in time zones, so I saw more than a few heads nodding at one time or another.

While in Changsha, we were each assigned a student escort – my escort’s name was Penny Lee, and she’s majoring in English.  She was fascinated by everything she was hearing throughout the symposium. Unfortunately, she was dissuaded from math and science early and it’s extremely difficult for her to change majors this late in the game … so it seems we still have much to do to attain gender equity in engineering! I gave her my contact information, and out of all the folks I met on this trip, I most hope that she stays in touch with me.

SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaSWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaOn Wednesday we enjoyed another fabulous breakfast buffet, then back on the bus for a morning of tours. The first stop was at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education Center founded by Professor Yang Fang of CSU. She is quite the mover and shaker, ranking among the experts of college student innovation and entrepreneurship education in China, and this innovation/incubation center was the first of its kind in China. From there we went on to the High Speed Railway Laboratory at the Rail Transportation University. SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in China(Yes, they have an entire university devoted to designing and testing trains, as well as another university devoted to electric power… one would have to be pretty confident they weren’t going to change majors when enrolling a school like that!) We then went on to tour the SANY Company, a manufacturer of construction, mining and drilling equipment with the largest production facility in Asia - 10,000 employees on that campus alone!  SWE Co-Sponsors Women in Engineering Symposium in ChinaThey also have a huge innovation center on their site where they’re encouraging innovative technologies and holding competitions with significant cash awards. SANY hosted us for lunch on their campus, where we had a chance for final discussions with the other participants before dispersing. Closing comments were given by SWE’s Peter Finn and CSU’s Professor Yang… and we took the opportunity to sing Happy Birthday to Peter!

We had a ~45 minute bus ride back to the hotel and had a bit of time to change and relax before heading to the airport. I took the opportunity to walk around the new Changsha Meixihu International Culture and Arts Centre that is being built next to the hotel. It’s an incredibly modern looking set of structures, and when complete will house a Grand Theatre, a contemporary art museum, a multipurpose hall, and numerous supporting facilities. I’m looking forward to coming back to attend a performance there soon!