Short-term field study involves groups of students working in an off-campus (sometimes international) setting, and often involves working on realistic, open-ended problems, in interaction with a host community. Such learning experiences are intended to develop skills and knowledge needed for working across cultures and contexts and in interdisciplinary teams. One aspect of such programs which requires particular attention is their potential to take students out of their ‘comfort zone’, thereby enabling them to question their previously taken-for-granted assumptions. Fully exploiting such opportunities requires considering the role of social and human sciences in such programmes for engineering students. Here we analyse four case studies of short-term field study programmes in engineering education. While there are differences in location (Switzerland, China, Russia, Colombia), and in the nature of the projects, they share a methodology of mixing student disciplines and skills, interaction with people from other cultures or contexts, physically moving to a fieldwork location radically different from a classroom setting, and the use of reflection tools drawn from social and human sciences. Conclusions are drawn from this as to the possibilities, issues and challenges in short-term field studies in engineering education.