As the Chinese economy continues to boom and China continues to assert itself as a major player in today’s global economy, a pair of United States senators have introduced legislation that would encourage U.S. students to get to know their Chinese counterparts by trading stories, discussing cultural differences, and learning each other’s languages through online and face-to-face exchanges.

Regardless of whether the bill becomes law, at least one U.S. company already is moving forward with a service that will foster online cultural exchanges between students of the two nations.

Called the United States-China Cultural Engagement Act of 2005, the bipartisan bill, introduced by Sens. Joseph Liberman, D-Conn., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., authorizes $1.3 billion over five years to bridge the cultural divide that exists between two powerful, but vastly different, nations.

Among its many goals, the bill aims to boost Chinese language instruction in American schools, support American commercial activity in China, and provide for physical and virtual exchanges between citizens in both countries.

“Providing our children with the opportunity to understand the Chinese language and culture will help ensure they have a better chance of succeeding in the global economy,” Lieberman said in a July press release about the bill.

For months now, some of the nation’s leading business leaders and politicians have been talking about the inevitable rise of China–and its impact on the U.S. economy. Looking to the future, several captains of industry, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, have questioned whether America’s high schools, given their steadily declining graduation rates, are doing what is necessary to prepare students for success in the new century.

U.S. corporations look for cheaper help overseas, and traditionally lesser-developed countries such as China and India continue to rise to the challenge. These nations now graduate highly skilled engineers and other technical workers at rates several times what U.S. colleges and universities produce. As a result, critics contend that widespread reforms are needed to keep America’s youth competitive.

“There will be challenges in the United States’ relationship with China as it grows and we seek to maintain our position in the world and our standard of living,” said Alexander. “But it’s my hope that the United States will spend some of our time and money getting to know China better, and that Chinese citizens will spend time getting to know us.”

Reaching out–virtually

Relationship-building between the two nations is already under way at San Diego’s Patrick Henry High School. As part of a program to bolster student appreciation for foreign cultures, Candace Pauchnick, a human psychology and sociology teacher, uses an internet chat and eMail program called ePALS to connect her students with a group of college students studying in China.

“It has opened up their eyes tremendously,” said Pauchnick of the virtual communication and cultural exchange program, which she first introduced to students in 2002. These days, the technology serves as the centerpiece for three elective courses offered to Patrick Henry juniors and seniors. And interest in the program has never been higher, Pauchnick said.

“Every magazine, every newspaper today is talking about China and the U.S. economy,” she explained. With all the excitement that’s been drummed up in the press, Pauchnick would be hard-pressed to come up with a more relevant lesson for her students–many of whom, she admits, could use some help in the geography department.

“A lot of these kids don’t even know where other places are in the world,” she pointed out. And even for those students who do, getting past the cultural barriers can be a challenge.

As part of the course, students in Pauchnick’s class exchange eMail messages and occasionally chat live via videoconferences with a group of college students at China’s Guangxi Polytechnic University. Working with her Chinese counterpart, Professor Chen Yaodong, Pauchnick encourages students to talk openly about the vast societal and cultural differences that exist between American and Chinese students.

“Sometimes my students are a little shy,” Pauchnick says. But once they get past the stereotypes and insecurities, “it is intensely exciting.” The kids really start to open up.

The idea, she says, is to “learn about cultures from all over the world”–and, in turn, encourage students to learn more about themselves.

What’s more, she says, these virtual exchanges also double as lessons in courtesy. In Pauchnick’s classroom, that means a ban on popular instant-messaging (IM) speak. Students must write “you,” not “u,” and “are,” not “r.” It’s “laugh out loud,” not “lol,” she says.

The challenge is to remind students that the lessons are as much about learning language as they are about communicating. If you don’t write clearly, she says, you’re doing your international friends a disservice: Understanding is the key.

When students do learn to ask questions and to listen, Pauchnick says, they gain perspectives they otherwise might never have had the opportunity to gain.

“Being able to communicate and being able to see the differences and similarities in a school in California and a school in Liuzhou, China, is amazing,” wrote Cara, a student in Pauchnick’s class. “This program can help people of different backgrounds interact and could close the narrow-minded gap that some people live in.”

Her Chinese counterparts agree.

“I find that learning English is like building a house, laying a strong foundation is the most important step,” wrote Fang Fang, a Chinese student in the program.

What might have seemed intimidating to these kids at one time is now just another exercise in making friends, said Pauchnick: “It really takes away a lot of the fear.” And given the economic strides China is making, “this is even more important.”

New Chinese-English web portal

That’s pretty much the same thought ePALS Chairman and Co-Founder Tim DiScipio had when he decided to launch a special program geared specifically toward cultivating relationships between U.S. and Chinese students.

“Without a doubt, there is something really significant happening,” DiScipio said upon returning home from a recent trip to China, where he met with education officials there. In September, ePALS plans to launch the Chinese-English Language and Learning Portal, enabling students in more than 103,000 classrooms around the globe to connect with Chinese schools.

Initially, the project will focus on matching approximately 60,000 English-speaking primary and secondary K-12 schools in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland with schools in China. The idea is to allow Chinese teachers and students to practice English language skills while providing a background in Chinese history, culture, and language to English-speaking classrooms.

DiScipio said ePALS hopes to create “a global community,” where students and teachers from all over the world can come together to share their experiences and learn how the other side lives.

Driven by the simple principle that “no culture has more knowledge to give than another,” ePALS currently connects 4.6 million educators and students in 191 countries. And like the Chinese economy, DiScipio says, his company is experiencing tremendous growth.

With more than 1,600 new registrations coming online each month, DiScipio said, “we want to make sure every classroom around the world, even if it’s in some remote corner of Tanzania, can register” for the program.

It costs nothing to create a classroom profile and register on the site, but many of the tools and benefits provided through the ePALS program come at an additional cost to schools. The amount of money each institution pays to participate is directly related to the number of tools and features educators choose to use.

At its highest level, the ePALS portal will enable students and teachers in English-speaking classrooms to practice Chinese language skills through a combination of eMail and chat tools; pose cultural questions to Chinese classrooms; discuss national traditions and holidays; access learning resources provided by the Chinese government; engage in collaborative language projects with foreign-language experts; and access tips and recommended lesson plans meant to increase their cultural understanding.

On the other side, Chinese classrooms will have the ability to engage in teacher-supervised, eMail-based reading and writing projects; practice English with the help of U.S. peers; participate in moderated discussion boards in English; and connect with English-language-speaking educators worldwide to share best practices and exchange ideas for the classroom.

“We want to use Chinese culture as our theme for the year,” said Becky Ernsberger, a school technology coordinator within the Dallas Independent School District. “We’d like our schools to share Texas history, science, environmental issues, language, reading, writing, and art with schools in China.”

Coming together

With China on the move as a global economic power, some forward-thinking educators in the United States are using more than just the internet to reach out to their Asian counterparts–they’re making the trip to witness the growth firsthand.

In October, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the International Association for Technology Trade (IATT) will join Chinese counterparts to host the 2005 China Educational Technology Conference and Exposition in the city of Dongguan, just north of Hong Kong.

Dongguan is home to a school system that supports an astonishing 15 million students across 28,000 primary, middle, and high schools. One of China’s most modern and productive cities, Dongguan boasts a student-to-computer ratio of 8 to 1 and contains several institutions of higher learning, many which offer degrees in educational technology, according to ISTE. The conference is scheduled for Oct. 13-17.

Working with Dongguan city government officials, organizers have arranged to hold the conference in conjunction with the sixth International Computer, Communication, and Consumer Electronics Exposition (3C Expo)–reportedly the third largest IT exposition of its kind in the world.

With more than 10,000 attendees expected on each day of the four-day event, ISTE says the conference should give U.S. companies and educators a chance to explore China’s burgeoning technology infrastructure and make contact with important government officials, many of whom are likely to play a central role in that country’s emergence as an educational and economic world power.

“There is a realization in China that in order to be competitive, they are going to have to significantly expand their education system,” said ISTE Chief Executive Officer Don Knezek. From a U.S. perspective, he said, the conference represents a tremendous opportunity for U.S. corporations to “gain some firsthand knowledge” about what’s really going on over there. “There are some extremely interesting initiatives already under way in China,” he said.

Back in San Diego, Pauchnick and her students know just what he means.

“I’ve always thought that the saying It’s a small world’ was false, and now I feel so even stronger,” wrote Melissa, a Patrick Henry Student. “The world is huge.”

See these related links:

ePALS Classroom Exchange Inc.

International Association for Technology Trade

International Society for Technology in Education

Sen. Joseph Lieberman

Sen. Lamar Alexander