Campus IST professor travels to Kazakhstan for cross-cultural project

By: Josh McAuliffe

Penn State Scranton Professor of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) Dr. Alan Peslak recently traveled to the other side of the world in order to give his students a unique and practical cross-cultural learning experience.

This summer, Peslak spent a week in Nur-Sultan, the capital city of the central Asian country of Kazakhstan. There, he worked with faculty at S. Seifullin Kazakh AgroTechnical University to develop an IT project for Seifullin and Penn State Scranton students to work on together throughout the fall semester.

Specifically, the students from the two schools are collaborating to develop iPhone and Android apps that will provide an easily discoverable list of agricultural terms, soils and plants, with an accompanying Google Maps component. The Seifullin students will provide the content, while students in Peslak’s IST 421 -- Advanced Enterprise Integration: Technologies and Applications course will develop the application.

Because of the 10-hour time difference, the two groups are interacting via late-night and early-morning online video conferences. The first meeting was 10 p.m. EST and 8 a.m. Kazakh time. From there, the schedules will be reversed.

Despite some anticipated communication challenges, the project is going well so far, according to Peslak.

“This is a unique opportunity to work with students from a central Asian culture with a 10-hour time difference and a very structured approach to education as compared to our more relaxed style,” he said.

The trip was made possible through a grant secured for Penn State Beaver’s EDGE (Experiential Digital Global Engagement) program, which connects Penn State students with classes around the world through technology in hopes of creating a “virtual international exchange.”

Modeled after the State University of New York’s Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) program, EDGE gives participating students access to global thinking and collaboration, particularly among place-bound and less-resourced students.

Peslak first learned about EDGE during a presentation given by Penn State Beaver Assistant Teaching Professor in English Tiffany MacQuarrie at the semi-annual IST all-campus meeting. Immediately, he was intrigued by the prospect of working on joint projects with students from far-flung corners of the globe.

With that, he contacted Penn State Beaver Chancellor Jenifer Cushman, Ph.D., who secured the grant.

“I saw it as a unique opportunity for our IST students to gain exposure to other cultures and work together on international projects,” he said. “Our students graduate and work for a variety of international organizations and the ability to coordinate with individuals with other values and worldviews is an invaluable skill.”

Previously known as Astana until early 2019, Nur-Sultan’s roots go back to the 1830s, when it was founded as a defensive fortification for Siberian Cossacks. Today, Peslak said, it’s a very modern city with a plenty of hotels, restaurants and striking architecture. 

“It even has an ultra-modern shopping center with a large indoor pool, beach and volleyball courts on the top level,” Peslak said. “Nur-Sultan is a fascinating city, surprisingly well worth a tour visit. We visited some of the top places there, including the Baiterek Tower, Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center and the Nur-Astana Mosque.”

The food, meanwhile, was excellent, said Peslak, noting meals were meat-laden affairs that included lamb, beef, chicken and even horse, which is considered a delicacy in Kazakhstan.

“I did not try the horse,” Peslak said. “The most popular fast food chain is surprisingly KFC. I asked about that and was told they didn’t like sandwiches like McDonald’s, though there was one McDonald’s there.”

Many of the people he encountered in Nur-Sultan spoke little to no English. But those he was able to converse with expressed genuine affection for the United States and its people.

“It was very heartwarming to see that,” he said.

Peslak said he hopes to continue the working relationship with Seifullin’s students and faculty beyond this semester. Meanwhile, he would “absolutely” make another trip to Nur-Sultan.

“The people were friendly, the city was amazing and the culture was familiar enough but different enough to be fascinating,” he said. “I would definitely like to return.”