WPI Students Do Senior Projects in China
Last summer, three students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute spent seven weeks at Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in China working on various senior design projects, which included designing a multifunction hospital bed and an automated paper clip packaging machine.
As part of Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Global Perspective Program, the WPI students lived on the Huazhong University campus, and worked with 12 students from that university on five design projects, which were supported by industrial sponsors, including U.S. companies doing business in China.
With China emerging as the United States' most important trading partner, the importance of preparing engineers in both countries to work with each other is becoming an important priority. The WPI-HUST collaboration, which involves mutual visits at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, is designed to give students the opportunity to gain cross-cultural experience while working on a professional project, as well as to develop an appreciation for the host country.
As Jake Doucet, one of the seniors from WPI participating in the program put it, "You realize, although they live halfway around the world and have a form of government completely foreign to you, the people share many of the same ideas and concerns as you yourself do."
Currently, there are 15 WPI students in China working with their HUST partners on seven industry-sponsored projects. According to Kevin Rong, a professor at WPI who helped supervise the 2006 activities, it is already clear that the program — now in its third year — is providing the students with an exceptional educational experience.
"The students brought different strengths to the teams," said Prof. Rong. "For many real-world situations, the problem and the project goals are usually vague at the beginning and the WPI students, with their previous project experience, usually took the lead in developing the initial conceptual design. They did, in particular, ask a lot of 'what if' questions. But the HUST students caught up quickly, and their strong analytical and technical skills became a real asset as the designs became more specific."
All team members — both students and faculty — found it challenging to work on teams with students and advisors from different cultural backgrounds. Language, however, was not an issue since all the Chinese students were fluent in English.
And the experience was a rewarding one for all involved. Prof. Rong and the co-advisors at HUST felt that the American and the Chinese students learned much about how to communicate with the project sponsors, their advisors, and each other, to ensure that the project objectives were clear.
The team members also gained an appreciation for the benefits of working in a diverse team. "My biggest gain in this project is to know the procedure of doing a real-world project, such as how to start, how to discuss the project with people, how to come up with the initial idea for a new design, and how to present the idea/results of the project," said Jin Wang, a senior at HUST.
Although they spent the bulk of their time working on design projects, the WPI students had the opportunity to experience China and Chinese culture. Bill Durgin, an ASME Fellow and former associate provost at WPI who visited HUST while the projects were in progress, noted, "The students received a good dose of local culture even though they were totally absorbed in their project work. I was very pleased to see that the mixed teams had developed a remarkable esprit de corps. Indeed, several of our students visited the hometowns of the some of the Chinese students, post-project."
Or, as Chris Maskwa from WPI said, "It's hard to say what was more impressive, whether it was standing in the center of Tiananmen Square, climbing the Great Wall, hiking the slopes of a Taoist mountain, or looking across the lake at the emperor's Summer Palace. But one thing is for sure: These are things I will remember for the rest of my life." Maskwa, who was hired by a U.S. manufacturing company after his graduation, said he expects work to take him back to China frequently.
The purpose of the WPI-HUST collaboration is to educate engineers who have the skills and attitude to work effectively in an international setting. In addition to sponsoring projects to help develop an internationally experienced workforce, some of the sponsors found that the student teams provided other benefits to their corporations.
"The way the WPI-HUST team works in a company brings in fresh air by showing that there is a scientific way to analyze the manufacturing process. This is an area that needs to be strengthened in many companies," said Al Barry, chief executive officer of APCIS, a U.S. company with manufacturing operations in Wuxi, China. The company sponsored one project during the summer of 2006 as well as two projects this year.
In addition to APCIS and Saint Gobain Abrasives, which sponsored projects this year and last, two more U.S. companies have signed up to sponsor projects over the next two years. As part of the exchange program, students from HUST also visited WPI and worked on two projects, one involving designing a special mini-dynamometer for grinding processes and a lean manufacturing plant layout design. It was the first time the Chinese students worked on an industry-sponsored project, and they found that the need to develop problem specifications and communicate with the sponsor enhanced their education and helped them gain confidence in working on real-world problems.
The WPI Global Perspective Program has its own operating budget and staff. It is administered by the dean of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies (IGSD), who reports directly to the provost. The Global Perspective Program has been in existence since the mid-1970s and has grown continuously since its inception. Today, more than 500 students in a total undergraduate population of 2,700 complete off-campus projects each year. Thus, well over half of all students at WPI have participated in an international project by the time of graduation.
Young engineers must be ready to deal with unfamiliar problems in an unfamiliar setting, and must accept that they will be working with a large number of people who come from a culture different than theirs. Preparing young engineers to work in a flat world is no longer something that engineering schools can treat as an extracurricular activity, available only to those who have the time and resources to spend an extra semester abroad. All students must develop the attitudes and skills necessary to function globally, right from the time they first enter the workforce. The WPI Global Perspective Program provides the education to do so.
To read more about the Global Perspective Program, visit http://admissions.wpi.edu/Academics/global.html.