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When Knoxville was announced to be host of the 1982 World’s Fair, the national perception was that the town was more Mayberry than metropolis, with the Wall Street Journal referring to the town as a “scruffy little city” and mockingly calling it “Paris on the Tennessee.”

SawhneyIn the thirty years since, the area has become home to a handful of Fortune 500 companies, seen an influx of residents from around the country and the world, and appeared in several lists touting the quality of life to be found here.

In much the same way that the fair helped begin to change perceptions about Knoxville, UT’s International Lean Summer Program is working to change the perception that students have about the university.

In just its fifth year, the program has grown from twenty-six students to 180. This year’s program, which begins in July, will include students from Brazil, China, Colombia, Mexico, and Uganda, with future growth for the program including participants from Botswana, France, England, Ghana, Italy, and South Korea.

Call it UT’s version of a world’s fair.

“The big opportunity here is to have students come to UT from all corners of the globe, to see the area, to see the school, and to change the perceptions that people might have about Tennessee,” said program founder Rupy Sawhney, the Heath Fellow in Business and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “It cannot be overstated how much of an impact that makes when they go back and tell their fellow students, their fellow citizens, what it’s like here.

“That exposure and the impact it has on how we’re seen around the world are truly immeasurable. It’s like having a class of ambassadors for UT every summer.”

The growth of the program—course participants outnumber undergraduates in the department—has received national and international attention, with the Institute of International Education, the Institute of Standards and Technology, and faculty members at other universities all taking notice.

Internationally, the course has become so well regarded in Brazil and Mexico that students at top universities in those countries view it as a point of honor to attend.

Sawhney said that a number of participants wind up coming to UT for graduate studies.

He also pointed out that the benefit works both ways, with Knoxville-area businesses and residents being exposed to and learning about other cultures. Furthermore, the international mix means that, by default, teams must learn new ways of working together to meet their goals, something that’s key to the summer course and for UT students.

“They get the real-world experience of being in actual working environments, learning to work as a unit, learning to problem solve, etc., before they enter the workforce,” said Sawhney. “That serves as a benefit to them but also as a major bonus to the businesses and companies that we partner with, since they get those alternate viewpoints as well.”

This year’s camp runs June 29–July 31, with the first week conducted mainly through online lessons before students arrive for the opening ceremony on the morning of July 6—fittingly enough—at the Foundry at World’s Fair Park.

Once on campus, students will spend four weeks in a mixture of classes and internships before wrapping things up with a closing ceremony on July 31.

While at UT, students learn what is known as the lean enterprise system. Lean is the process of improving production, cutting waste, and conserving energy.

Their ideas are put to the test in companies and businesses around East Tennessee and are checked to see how they panned out, how reliable they are over the long haul, and how easily they can be implemented.

As part of the process, participants have full access to labs, research, facilities and faculty to help them come up with their ideas and put them to use.



Kim Cowart (865-974-0686 or