Vancouver Sun: SFU partners with Chinese university in unique dual-degree, computer science program

July 13, 2015

The original article was published in Vancouver Sun.

Vancouverite Sterling Hoeree didn't speak a word of Mandarin when he applied to study computer science at Simon Fraser University and at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. But the graduate said completing the dual degree and learning the language were among the best decisions he's made.

"The opportunity to go abroad and to study Mandarin was really good," said the 25-year-old Métis student. "It helped me mature, broadened my horizons and changed the way I think about the world."

That's exactly how Professor Ze-Nian Li, the director of SFU's computer-science dual-degree program, hoped the initiative would develop when it was launched 10 years ago.

"What distinguishes it is that it's a degree program with Chinese and Canadian students learning in both countries," Li said. "As a whole, students become much, much better individuals, aware of different cultures and societies."

Canadian undergraduate students spend a year studying basic computer science and Mandarin at SFU before going to Zhejiang University, one of China's top three universities, where they join their Chines counterparts for two years. The Chinese and Canadian students then spend another two years — possibly longer if they choose co-op work programs — at SFU.

Hoeree, who graduated last year, taught English to young children throughout the two years he was in China and said it was a great way to improve his own language skills. He then completed two internships with Vancouver-based Demonware, a company that provides software for some of the world's most popular video games.

Hoeree, now employed as a computer engineer at Demonware, is among the 140 students who have graduated from the program with a Bachelor of Science from SFU and a Bachelor of Engineering from Zhejiang University.

The program has been such a success that it expanded to the graduate level in 2011. And this week Xianta Jiang, 43, will be the first PhD student to graduate.

Jiang completed an undergraduate biology degree, and a Master's degree in computer science in China before embarking on his doctoral studies at Zhejiang University. He'd never been to Canada, but leapt at the chance to study in both countries.

"It's really worth doing the PhD," Jiang said. "The chance to come here and build research opportunities and to experience two different cultures . . . It's been wonderful."

Jiang's research focused on monitoring the stress of doctors performing keyhole surgery. The levels were measured by variations in the size of the surgeons' eye pupils, which expand during stress. This work may help to alert doctors to dangerous stress levels, and thereby improve performance.

"It can be applied to other areas as well — like pilots flying an airplane," said Jiang, who is interested in health-related research. Jiang will remain in Vancouver for his post-doctorate work to create a smart-watch to help stroke patients.

To watch a video of Jiang, go here.

Andrew Petter, SFU's president who recently returned from a provincial trade mission to China with B.C.'s Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson, credits faculty members at both universities with making the program a success.

"The faculty members are some of the leaders in the world of computer science," Petter said. "In a globalized world economy where opportunities are international, these students are well positioned."

Graduates have gone on to work at companies such as Google, Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Twitter and IBM — and some have continued their studies at top universities such as Stanford, Berkeley and Yale.

"Even for those Chinese and Canadian students who return home afterwards the connections and opportunities they make through the program will serve them well in the business and academic worlds," Petter said.

SFU looks to China and beyond

SFU's computer-science dual degree program earned the 2013 Canadian Bureau for International Education Panorama Award for Outstanding International Education Program, and the 2012 British Columbia Council for International Education Outstanding Program Award.

Its success led the university in 2013 to launch a Master of Arts double-degree program in global communication with the Communication University of China in Beijing. The two-year program is conducted entirely in English with students spending one year at SFU and one year in Beijing.

"What the students learn from each other in the cross-cultural exchange is in many ways as important as what they learn in the classroom," Petter said. "The rewards for students, the universities, communities and countries we serve are enormous."

"It's a very exciting model and one we hope to extend to other programs and countries," he said.