Dual-degree program worth the challenge

March 21, 2007

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By Diane Luckow

Eighteen months ago, David Carlson had never spoken a word of Mandarin. Now he speaks it every day on campus at Zhejiang University (ZU) in Hangzhou, China where he and nine other SFU students are participating in a unique SFU/ZU dual-degree program (DDP) in computing science.

The students first spent a year at SFU studying Mandarin and computer programming before leaving for two years of study at ZU in May 2006. They'll return to SFU in September 2008 for a further two years, culminating in degrees from both universities.

Carlson is proud of his Mandarin fluency. But he says it hasn't been adequate for learning physics or calculus, two of the three DDP courses taught partially in Chinese, which he's concerned about passing.

"It was a very strenuous learning experience," admits Carlson, who joined the program directly from high school. "In that sense, I bit off a bit more than I could chew." He says the next SFU DDP cohort will learn calculus before they arrive in China.

Teaching styles in China are completely different from those in Canada, he notes. Professors lecture students, they don't engage them in critical discourse. As well, university courses are more advanced, since Chinese students take a more difficult high school program.

And while life in China is also very different, it hasn't been uncomfortable. Carlson's room on campus is three times bigger than SFU's residence accommodations. He eats his meals at university cafeterias or local noodle restaurants and says it's safe to drink the tap water. Hangzhou city, which surrounds a lake, is "astoundingly beautiful," he says.

Despite his academic difficulties so far, Carlson wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

"What other program offers two degrees in a very relevant major and gives you the unique opportunity of not only experiencing the Chinese culture first-hand but really integrating into the lifestyle?"

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