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Damir Mitric, La Trobe University, Australia

Humanities and engineering is as likely a disciplinary pairing as Bosnia is a destination of choice for students. But La Trobe University research fellow Damir Mitric, along with colleague Eddie Custovic, is changing the narrative, sending interdisciplinary groups to the post-conflict country to learn and help rebuild.


"We've created something that's reflecting our struggles as two professionals in two different disciplines"

The PIE: How did your program develop?

Damir Mitric: I had been taking students to Bosnia for a while, and about three and a half years ago, I found out there was another academic at La Trobe University who had also been taking students to Bosnia. We didn’t know about each other and yet we’d been there for years.

“You need to find a common language, and you need to find strategies to solve them”

I’m a historian, he’s an engineer. We met up for a coffee, a very Bosnian sort of thing to do, and we decided that we should merge what we were doing and create a framework that would support that.

The PIE: How does it work?

DM: We bring together engineering students with students from non-engineering backgrounds. We get them to go through a design thinking process to get them to think about a problem that people in Bosnia are experiencing. They work in these interdisciplinary groups to come up with a product that would be possible to implement in the Bosnian market.

They spend about eight weeks working in teams made up of at least two engineers, to come up with a product design, and then they travel to Bosnia as a group to pitch that in front of an international audience.

The PIE: How did the two study tours work before the combined program?

DM: The tour I was involved in was genocide studies. My background is in modern European history, and the Bosnian war and its aftermath. The study tour took Australian students over to Bosnia to experience firsthand what it feels like to be in a post-genocidal setting. My colleague, Eddie Custovic, is also Bosnian and was taking engineers over there to work with companies and infrastructure projects.

You cannot have more opposite worlds colliding. On the one hand, humanity students who are exploring very philosophical, deep questions while they’re immersing themselves in another culture. While the engineers are learning what it feels like to work in the cultural context.

The PIE: How does the combination of the disciplines change the learning for both sets of students?

DM: It completely shakes their world. One of the projects a group worked on was related to a mobile bus that would allow mental health access to people in rural areas. These students came up with this idea that mental health is a big issue in Bosnia after the war. It’s only been two decades since the war finished, and mental health is a bit of a taboo topic.

“It is a place that is an unusual destination in this context, and that’s what makes it very appealing”

They came up with the idea to create this mobile health centre that can reach rural areas. We keep reflective journals as part of the assessment, and reading these journals was amazing because you have the engineers talking about the technical aspects of how to design this bus and what’s going to be a problem. Then you have the humanity students saying, “They’re only talking about the technical aspects. There are bigger, bigger ethical questions that we’re not even discussing’.

You need to find a common language, and you need to find strategies to solve them.

The PIE: So each discipline must deal with the other’s dilemmas?

DM: It’s borne out of this collaboration I have with Eddie. We are very much involved in the idea of how we can create better leaders in Bosnia. We have the same passion and objective, which is to get Bosnia to be on a different level. But the way that I would take this forward is very different from the way he would. We’ve created something that’s reflecting our struggles as two professionals in two different disciplines.

The PIE: How do Australians respond to going to a post-conflict country like Bosnia?

DM: The way that we market this is to say this is niche. This is a post-conflict society. It is safe; Bosnia is not on the list of those countries that you need to take special care, and we wouldn’t be taking them if it were. But it is a place that is an unusual destination in this context, and that’s what makes it very appealing.

The PIE: In a different PIE Chat, a Russian representative commented political tensions can increase interest in it as a study destination for political science students. Based on your program, it seems the same for post-conflict societies?

DM: For humanities students, that definitely is the case. For them, they do theoretical studies, and now they have a chance to go somewhere and be in a space that very complex.

For engineering students, it’s a different type of fascination. They like the experience because they get to work with their peers in Bosnia who are not only on the same level, but they are incredibly resourceful. They do not have the same support. Our students are shocked at what these students achieve with nothing, more or less. Biology students will say, “My lab normally has 200 microscopes, one for everybody. 200 students here have three microscopes, yet what they’re doing is more innovative”.

The PIE: What about the employability elements?

DM: All four assessment pieces that students do is leading to the employability pathway. The opening one is a pitch before they go, which relates to a scenario that we provide to them at the beginning of the class.

“You cannot have more opposite worlds colliding”

The subject is a scenario. And the scenario is that Eddie and I are owners of a company that is sending 20 of its top employees on an R&D mission to find out whether we can open up the Bosnia market to some of our products. We want the top 20 to split up into teams to be sent over to scope. The first exercise is that they need to pitch to the board of directors to apply for funding to travel.

The PIE: Has anyone been denied funding from the first assignment?

DM: So far, everybody has got a ‘yes’! We set the agenda in the right way, but if you did get a ‘no’, you literally would fail the subject.

They venture off to Bosnia and then they have to present the poster at an international congress that’s organised by IEEE, which is the biggest electronic and electric engineers and mechanical engineers association in the world. Our students attend that congress and pitch their ideas. We have investors with real money, so someone with a good idea could get funding.

When they’re in Bosnia, their journal asks them to think about problems they’re facing then tell us about what they’re doing about that problem. How are you fixing that problem? When they come back, they write a response to selection criteria we set up for them. We create an interdisciplinary position, and we invite them to respond to it, write a cover letter and respond to the selection criteria.

The engineers also split up from the rest of the group. They go and do training where they get a chance to get certified in robotics training, using software for manoeuvring robotic arms in manufacturing settings. The humanities students are embedded in local organisations, depending on their background.

The PIE: Where do you see the program going in the future

DM: This is the latest version of what we’re doing. We’re always modifying bits and pieces, tweaking it to think about how we can push it even harder to be innovative and to give the students the best experience,

Scaling up is the next thing. We currently take about 25; that’s because we don’t receive any funding. We’re doing this on our own time, and students are paying for their fees as they would normally to do a subject. They have to cover their flight and accommodation.

This is a model that is transferable. We’re looking for partners. We’re very happy for other universities to try to explore how they, too, could send the students to Bosnia. We have the entire package available that we’re happy to negotiate and speak to people about how they can adapt this to their own particular context and also direct with third-party providers who are interested in taking students to Bosnia. This is an export opportunity for Bosnia as a country. So for us, the key thing is to try to open the markets to other providers, and that’s the next step.

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