University of Calgary


October 16, 2009

Engineering lessons from ancient Greece

Natalie Hilbrecht wanted to spice up her engineering studies, so she took a group study program to Greece to get insight into ancient engineering. This is her postcard home. 

Tell us about your group study program to Greece.

I chose to study in Greece, on the island of Crete, because I had travelled to Europe once before and was eager to go back. I went to Crete with about 30 other engineering students from the University of Calgary.  We also had two professors from the Schulich School of Engineering travelling with us who taught us the history and archaeology course. We were taught our math course by a professor at the Technical University of Crete, in the city of Kounoupidiana, where we stayed. 

One of the great things about this program was the way it was organized; we had classes during the mornings for four days per week, and on weekends we visited archaeological sites and interesting cities around the island. The experiential learning component of this trip was unbeatable.

Tell us about your interaction with Greek culture.

The people on Crete were very relaxed, and it felt like they preferred to live their lives at a slower pace. It was nice to drive around and see older people sitting in coffee shops together, just chatting all day. Dinners in Crete seemed to last longer as well, because every dinner came with bread, salad, a main course, and a shot of raki (a homemade Cretan alcohol).  It was nice to be able to relax and enjoy the food and the scenery.

One thing I found really interesting about Greece compared to Canada was the differences in approaches to university education. It was funny to see how surprised my math professor was when our entire class showed up for our 9 a.m. lecture at 9 a.m. He sauntered in at 9:15 a.m. and told us he really did not expect anyone to show up until about 9:30 a.m. Also, the students were much more politically active. For example, though we were in Crete during their students’ election, we did not go to school that day because our program coordinators were worried about protests and riots. 

What interesting things did you learn?

It was interesting to learn about the lifestyles of the ancient Minoan people, and it was amazing to see how advanced their society was. There was evidence on the archaeological sites of running water and very complex architecture and engineering which allowed natural heating or cooling of the buildings as needed, and provided natural lighting.

What was a highlight of your travels?

One of my favourite parts was a trip the group made to the eastern side of the island of Crete. We went for a weekend to visit two archaeological sites: Zakros and Malia, and stayed in the city of Agios Nikolas.  One night, almost the entire group of 30 students went out together to a rooftop bar, which had a fantastic view of the sea and the city lights. It was fun to be able to relax, enjoy the view, and make friends with all the amazing people on my trip. The next day we visited the Archaeological Museum of Crete, where we were able to see many of the artifacts that we had discussed during our courses.

How was the food?

I loved the food so much in Greece, that I bought a cookbook with Cretan dishes, as well as some spices, wine and olive oil to bring home as souvenirs from my study abroad. I cooked a Cretan feast for my family once I returned to Canada, with three dishes: Bouraki, spinach rice and Greek salad. The easiest way to describe Bouraki is that it is a layered dish like vegetarian lasagne, but is made with potatoes instead of noodles, and cheese instead of tomato sauce.

Words of wisdom?

When you study abroad, be flexible and easygoing, and try to learn at least some words of the language.  Realistically, things are not always going to go your way; sometimes the travel will tire you out, and you will be quickly meeting many new people. You will get much more out of your experience if you are able to go along with different things. Also, say “yes” to any exciting opportunities that arise, because if you think about it, when are you going to get another chance to, for example, swim in the Mediterranean Sea, or visit a Minoan potter, or watch the sun set on the island of Crete?

For more information on study abroad programs please visit abroad. This postcard was supplied by University of Calgary International.

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