Engineering students get international experience
September 10, 2015
A 16-hour flight. 8,356-miles. The Great Wall. Tiananmen Square. Total immersion.
As part of their education, Virginia Tech senior-level students and chaperones, embarked on a journey across the North Pacific Ocean, from Virginia to China.
Just four short months before The Boeing Leadership Program would commence, James Webb, a Virginia Tech alumnus and director of information technology of the Northeast Asia division of Boeing Engineering, suggested Virginia Tech become a partner in the program. With the university's engineering international team on board and time being of the essence, the administration team, headed by Kim Lester, now coordinator of pre-college programs for the college of engineering, began to streamline the planning process in order to prepare for the trip.
The initiative was to provide American aerospace and ocean engineering students a glimpse into the Chinese engineering student's academic life in the university setting. It would also provide an introduction to Chinese culture and industry, thus emphasizing the importance of global context in educating the next generation of engineers. The outcome for the students became an undeniably valuable first-hand collegiate experience paralleling an engineering professional working in today's global market.
The program was initially designed as a mechanism for six Boeing-sponsored aviation clubs to share activities. In a collaborative partnership with the Boeing Company, the program was restructured to include the University of California, Irvine and Virginia Tech, offering a professional seminar for 108 undergraduate aerospace engineering students at Tsingua University in Beijing.
The expedited planning process was a challenge.
"The time-difference of 12 hours proved to hamper the convenience of communication," said Lester, the global engagement specialist of the engineering program at the time. "Obtaining a travel visa was complicated. The complex application required letters of introduction and a comprehensive itinerary. And planning an event in a venue you have never seen is another challenge in itself."
Students would also need to be selected for the program.
Aerospace and Ocean Engineering faculty, primarily Robert Canfield and Pradeep Raj, spearheaded the selection process and insured students representing Virginia Tech lent to a refined, professional presentation regarding their senior design challenge.
The students were required to have completed the department's senior capstone design project. Once selection had been made, Raj met with the students numerous times over the course of the few months leading up to the trip.
"Raj successfully imparted the idea that their presence as American engineering students might be the first for Chinese faculty and students," said Lester.
The concentration of the Boeing-funded program was a two-day leadership course, co-hosted by the three universities on the Beijing home base. Boeing, the world's leading aerospace company and largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircrafts combined, provided the methodical expertise and the universities contributed pedagogical knowledge. Both American and Chinese students were audience to each other's project presentations and participated in a career and leadership development discussion led by some of Boeing's most influential international executives.
Howard Chung of Kuching, Malaysia, and Nick Pera of Alexandria, Virginia, now both graduates of the aerospace engineering curriculum and part of a four-person student team, prepared to present to their Chinese audience, along with students Eric Santure of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cody Reed of Colonial Beach, Virginia. As a team at the conference, they gave an overview of the department, their senior capstone design course, and the leadership challenges they faced.
"We utilized our own unique skill sets to work together in design teams. Hopefully, we were able to convey that to the Chinese students and faculty," said Pera. "How they positively responded to us and likewise, in the end helps both groups in better understanding how each formulates engineering design and solutions. It's a win, win."
The engineering students recognized the need to be fluent in a second language, especially one as vastly different from English as Chinese.
"I think the biggest challenge for both of student groups -- both American and Chinese -- was definitely the language barrier," said Pera. "The language barrier was more pronounced at some of the Chinese universities than at others." At several Chinese universities, English is now taught as a second language.
Chung, raised in Malaysia until college, was taught English as a second language and could comprehend most of the spoken Mandarin. He aided the Virginia Tech group immensely in basic communication.
"When I responded in Mandarin, there were a few laughs, but overall I definitely felt respect from my Chinese peers because I was trying to reach out and break past the barrier," said Chung.
As an undergraduate, Chung had transferred to Virginia Tech on full academic scholarship.
"Not only did different engineering methodologies and solutions, but we also engaged in conversations concerning social lifestyle and history in China and the United States," said Chung.
In his graduate research, Chung advised by Michael Philen, associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, is researching multifunctional materials used in the application of structural health monitoring in aircrafts. Sensors embedded into the aircraft will alert operators of possible flaws within the aircraft structure, revolutionizing traditional inspection and maintenance process in aviation.
At the time, both students agreed a highlight of the program was the Boeing panel on career and leadership development, but felt they learned more about the Chinese and their culture from traveling to various destinations in the country.
"Eating in their restaurants, using their transportation systems, and bargaining for souvenirs was fantastic," said Chung.
Following the 48-hour program filled with industry speakers and student presentations, two weeks of travel commenced and the students and chaperones were immersed in Chinese culture. Lester was part of the group.
"One day was spent in Jinan. It was 100 degrees and 95 percent humidity, but we hiked to the top of Thousand Buddha Mountain, which gave us a spectacular view and a nice breeze," recalled Lester. "On the way down we stopped to see the sculptures and paintings in a cave."
"An unforgettable and surreal experience was testing our fitness levels hiking a portion of the Great Wall of China," said Chung.
Pera said working for Boeing during an internship in the summer of 2013 in Huntington Beach, California, was "dream come true." The experience of the internship coupled with the Boeing program reaffirmed his long-term goal of obtaining a full-time position with the company post-graduate school, "but hopefully closer to home, like the Charleston, South Carolina location," Pera said with optimism. He plans to complete the master's program in December 2016.
Chung is focused on his research and hopes to earn his pilot's license in the near future. He plans to complete his master's program in May 2016.
"The students recognized four main benefits to participating in the conference and traveling abroad, including: increased cultural understanding, collaborative problem-solving skills, leadership skills, and understanding of the need to be proficient in foreign languages," said Lester. "They expressed the desire for other students to have similar experiences in the future."