MTU Adds Peace Corps Master’s International Programs

HOUGHTON — Michigan Technological University’s award-winning Peace Corps Master’s International program is offering new degree options for students in two departments: computer science and electrical and computer engineering (ECE).

The School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science is also expanding its PCMI programs to include a Master of Geographic Information Science degree.

The expanded programs will enable more students to take part in PCMI, in which students earn a master’s degree while simultaneously serving in the Peace Corps. Students typically take two semesters of courses on campus before volunteering for two years overseas and then returning to Michigan Tech to complete their degree.

(Photo above: PCMI computer science graduate student Tim Ward with members of his host community on the island nation of Vanuatu.)

“The new programs in computer science and ECE were pitched to the Peace Corps as an opportunity for our students to serve in math and science education or other sectors needing IT and technology expertise,” said Kari Henquinet, PCMI director at Tech. “Our new PCMI students will bring technical training together with the strong interdisciplinary training that all of our Tech PCMI students have.”

With the program’s new offerings, Michigan Tech students can now earn their master’s through 10 different academic departments.

“All PCMI students take classes about cross-cultural learning and working with communities no matter which program they’re in,” Henquinet said. “We have 68 students currently involved in PCMI and hope to grow that number as we recruit for our new offerings.”

Tim Ward, the first computer science PCMI student, says his experiences serving in the small island nation of Vanuatu have allowed him to use the STEM knowledge he gained through his undergraduate degree from Tech.

“This type of program lets you challenge yourself into overcoming obstacles that will make a first-world desk job seem like Easy Street once you get back,” Ward said. “I joined the computer science PCMI program at Tech because I knew what a powerful combination it would be.”

Since traveling overseas, Ward says his service projects have seen great success.

“We implemented an $85,000 solar computer lab,” he says. “We brought in funding and collaborators from seven different places. Without a volunteer, there would have been no hope of coordinating and funding anything like it. Peace Corps placed me in the crux of it all, allowing me to use my skills to better the lives of hundreds of students.”

There is quite a bit of personalization and customization available through the program, said associate professor Jean Mayo, faculty coordinator for the computer science PCMI program.

“Master’s students in computer science have the option to do thesis-, coursework-, or project-based studies to earn their degree,” Mayo said. “PCMI students in computer science take the project option and do work overseas to fulfill their requirements. Projects might be writing software that performs functions that current software doesn’t and provides a benefit to the community they’re serving in. Or, they could write software that allows an experiment to run using equipment that the community already has. It’s very versatile.”

Professor Leonard Bohmann, faculty coordinator for the ECE PCMI program, thinks the benefits his students can provide will be far-reaching.

“ECE students would be well-versed in applying many technologies to help the communities in which they volunteer, ” he says. “They might work on wireless technology projects or remote, stand-alone power systems, like photovoltaic or hydro-energy. One of the problems in many remote locations is access to power, especially for medical clinics. ECE students can help power them and keep medicines cold that need to be cold.”

Mayo attributes PCMI’s success at Tech to the type of students who attend the University.

“We attract students who are practically oriented,” she said. “The kinds of students who can thrive in a difficult environment — the kinds who help others.”

Peace Corps officials say they’re happy with the expanded partnership.

“Michigan Tech has the most robust Peace Corps graduate program in the nation,” said Brad Merryman, Peace Corps Midwest regional manager. “It’s a remote school with a finger on the pulse of today’s most pressing global issues, like women’s education, food security, potable water, environmental conservation and natural disaster mitigation. These new programs offer new opportunities for students to pursue their personal and professional interests through Peace Corps and launch careers while they make a difference. We’re thrilled that our partnership with Tech continues to expand.”

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