When asked by the Chinese government in 2003 to launch an unprecedented joint engineering school, Jean Dorey, then president of the prestigious Ecole Centrale de Lyon, did not hesitate to help.
There were several reasons behind his decision. One of the major ones was to "understand whether a teaching model, which was successful in France, could be 'transported' to such a different country, with adaptations of course".
"It proved successful," said Dorey, 61, when looking back at his 2006-11 assignment as dean of the Sino-French Engineering School of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
In 2010, the school received accreditation from France's Commission des Titres d'Ingenieur, an independent body involved in the evaluation of engineering higher education courses, and Eur-Ace, an European quality label for engineering degree programs, becoming the first institution in China to get international accreditation for its engineering courses. Similar schools are now mushrooming in China.
For Dorey, the first and foremost mission of the school is to train students, who grew up in an exam-oriented education system, to address real-world situations.
"An engineer is mainly here to solve problems," Dorey said.
Chinese and French engineering courses are "completely different", he said. Chinese students often are tested on the same cases they have studied, while "in the French system, we like to put students in front of new problems and give them theoretical tools to solve those problems."
Wang Tairan, a Chinese graduate from the school, had some difficulties adapting to the "problem-solving" teaching methods at first. But by the time he was a sophomore, he realized he knew how to "truly use my brain".
"In high school, we usually get tested on our knowledge of definitions, instead of our reasoning skills. So, as a freshman, I often had to rack my brains on a project but only achieved limited progress," he said.
"But once I was equipped with my new thinking skills, I found that all my following studies benefited from it a lot," said the 26-year-old PhD candidate at the Ecole Centrale de Lyon.
Another exhausting, but fruitful task, that Wang had to accomplish at the engineering school was a number of internships closely related to the industry.
Chinese universities and companies usually only communicate through research contracts instead of training programs, he said.
"However, we believe that to train engineers who are going to go directly from universities to industry, it's important to establish a bridge between universities and companies," Dorey said.
For a long time, the school only had French partners, but an increasing number of Chinese companies decided to join the internship program later. A student spends about eight months doing internships, and usually that time is split among three companies.
"It was a challenge to finish more courses and more internships than other students, but it was really good for us to know more about the industry before graduation," said Wang, who was an intern at Electricite de France and Aerolia.
As a dean, Dorey was not in the classrooms teaching, but students often came to him for advice.
He said that an important part of his job was to keep in permanent contact with students, and try to reassure them.
"The dean should keep his authority, and students fully respected me, but sometimes they called me shushu, which means uncle in Chinese. I still keep in touch with some of them even after graduation," he said.
Dorey said that culture shocks happened on a daily basis, but he tried his best to adapt.
"While I was in China, I had to adapt to the Chinese way of working. It was part of the game," he said.
Xiong Zhang, the Chinese dean of the school, said that there were often clashes between the two sides, but that the problems were always sorted out.
"Sometimes the Chinese dean and the French dean had big arguments over policy issues, but both of us were willing to seek common ground," he said.
Xiong also noted his French counterpart's "incomparable" interest in China and love for his adopted country.
Dorey said that the Chinese students' qualities were the main reason behind his motivation. "You can't do anything if your students don't follow you," he said.