Computer science students gain code-altering intercultural perspective after six days in Egypt
A trip to Egypt this spring allowed a group of computer science students to meet classmates they had only known virtually and challenged them to consider international perspectives when writing code and developing their capstone projects.
The collaboration with Alamein International University (AIU) also laid the foundation for future international collaborations, according to the university’s president, Essam Elkordi, who recently toured Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus and met with faculty members and administrators.
Three projects, two countries, one class
Mohammed Seyam, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, took students in his software engineering capstone course for a six-day trip to Egypt. This brief immersion in Egyptian culture changed how they developed code for their capstone projects.
Unlike any other computer science capstone course, half the students were graduating computer science students at Virginia Tech and half were students from AIU in El Alamein. Seyam partnered with AIU faculty to offer this collaborative course. By combining classes, students not only learned the coding and applications taught through typical capstone courses, they also learned to work through differences in time zones, cultures, and customs.
Although the two groups had been collaborating since the beginning of the semester through online synchronous classes, meeting in person during spring break was a new experience.
“It’s different when you get to hang out. You get to see how tall — or short — some of them are,” joked Rebecca Whitten, one of the Blacksburg-based students. The AIU classmates’ hospitality was one of the most memorable things for the visiting students.
“We felt like celebrities,” Jinit Shah said. The Egyptian students shared their favorite foods and took their Virginia Tech classmates to their favorite spots in El Alamein and Alexandria, where most of them live.
Traveling to Egypt, though, wasn’t just about getting a new immersive cultural experience for these students. It was also a chance to jump-start the projects they were doing for the course. For two of their six days in the country, the students huddled in an AIU computer lab for a hackathon-style operation where they pushed their projects from concept to draft. In just 16 hours, they built the very first versions of their projects and developed artifacts such as wireframes and relational database designs.
Mustafa ElNainay received his Ph.D. in computer engineering from Virginia Tech in 2009. He is AIU’s dean of the Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering and one of the AIU administrators the students met with while in Egypt. He said, “International collaboration in higher education leads to breakthroughs in knowledge, the free exchange of ideas, and developing bonds between institutions and nations.” These types of opportunities equip students to “graduate with the necessary skills for future jobs and contribute effectively for a better future.”
New perspectives drive new approaches
Two of the projects were for clients based in El Alamein and aimed to solve problems experienced by AIU students. The Virginia Tech students discovered small ways that their American experience colored their assumptions and could have influenced the way they designed the web applications for these Egyptian clients. What they witnessed and experienced in the country changed the way they approached their projects.
The students learned that some American websites can be slow to load or can take up significant amounts of data, which is a limited resource for many of their Egyptian classmates. In response, they were vigilant to ensure their sites were compatible with most Egyptian network capacities.
One group that was designing an application for AIU students discovered how involved students’ families are in their education. Students in the group realized an application for Egyptian students would benefit from a component that family members could access, too. So, they built it into the code.
Even while collaborating remotely from Blacksburg, the Virginia Tech students learned to adjust to different cultural expectations and perspectives to work with their Egyptian classmates. For instance, when Ramadan started, the student found the holy month completely changed their Egyptian classmates’ schedules and availability.
For Seyam, these types of organic learning opportunities were exactly what he was hoping would be the result of this collaborative class. “Yes, they worked with software tools and platforms they’ve never worked with before, but for me what’s more important than learning how to code is learning to code for users who live and think in different ways.”
A ‘most helpful’ class
By the end of the semester, the students had built three web applications. As one of their final collaborations, they all presented their completed projects at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research in Computer Science symposium. Together, they showed off their projects to faculty, staff, students, and industry experts, and the Egyptian classmates presented via Zoom.
Shah, Shalini Dubey, Youssef Tariq Ali, Ahmed Shokr, and Moumen Mustafa presented their web application called Graph Your Data, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to summarize and visualize chunks of text. Their interactive presentation won first place among all the undergraduate capstone projects in the computer science program.
The group working with AIU included Whitten, Zihao “Tedy” Huang, Khaled Bahaaeldin, Youssef Bedair, and Omar El Hmrawy. They developed an efficient room booking site for AIU residence halls and a portal for administrators to manage the bookings. The smallest group — Keshav Bhateja, Muhammad Solman, and Youssef Badreldin — built an application for an Egyptian transit company to help nonresidential AIU students with their often-lengthy commutes.
Because the applications could have such a positive impact for their campus community, the Egyptian students plan to continue working with both El Alamein clients. They hope to further expand the websites to provide both clients with fully functional products.
After presenting their projects and waving a last goodbye to their classmates on Zoom, the Blacksburg-based students gathered around a large dish of koshari — a ubiquitous Egyptian street food and one of the students’ favorite dishes from their trip.
They all agreed that this experience better prepared them for a world that is growing increasingly intercultural.
“Not only can I show future employers that I’ve built something cool, but I also have experience working with diverse groups and international partners,” Shah said. “In my senior exit survey, I wrote down this class as the most helpful class I’ve taken at Virginia Tech.”
A future collaboration emerges
Elkordi, the AIU president, visited Virginia Tech on May 22 to explore the possibility of expanding such collaborations.
“[Seyam’s] class was a wonderful experience for both sides, and we would like for it to be extended,” Elkordi said.
During his visit to Blacksburg, Elkordi met with Seyam and toured several labs and colleges to initiate conversations about collaboration. “I foresee the benefit of future collaboration for both universities. What we saw revealed new avenues of possibilities,” he said.
The delegation discussed opportunities such as a student and faculty exchange, a research collaboration, and joint and dual programs.
For Virginia Tech, the possibilities that are budding from this one collaborative capstone course underscore the university’s global focus.
The heart of the university’s global goals, according to the Associate Vice President of International Affairs Don Hempson, is finding and creating opportunities for students to not only learn about global challenges but also to understand what is required to solve these problems collaboratively.
“Mohammed Seyam’s class is a prime example of this transformative experiential programming,” Hempson said. “By engaging international institutions and utilizing an innovative, student-centered instructional methodology, Seyam is giving his students a uniquely immersive opportunity whereby they learn by doing how to communicate, how to work collaboratively, and how to succeed in an international business environment."