Civil engineering students travel abroad to learn first hand about sustainable design

Author: Gina Vozenilek
Assistant professor of civil engineering Ming Qu has taken her show on the road—all the way to her native China.

In the interest of doing more showing than telling, Qu’s educational “Maymester” trip aimed to give students immediate and immersive exposure to civil engineering practice in a country in which half of the world’s buildings go up each year.

Civil engineering senior Phillip Cherry was one of the 18 students who went to China from May 14 to May 27 to see the country’s wonders through the lens of civil engineering. “Our trip’s highlights were being able to visit many historical and modern culturally relevant sites in China, such as the Summer Palace, The Great Wall, and Yuyuan Garden,” Cherry reports.

Not his first trip abroad, Cherry points out that it was his first time overseas as a student. “We had one classroom lecture, and many ‘lectures’ at company offices in relation to green building,” he says. “Most of the trip was field-trip style, and much of the learning occurred in this environment.”

As foreign study goes, the China experience for Cherry—his first—was not without its difficulties. Besides the very real challenge of the language barrier, Cherry notes that “it was also extremely difficult to adjust to the ultra-dense cities of Beijing and Shanghai, although it was very eye-opening.”  That “eye-opening” experience is what makes any foreign study valuable. Professor Qu knows that her homeland has a lot to teach young civil engineering students who study their field mainly in classrooms situated in the sprawling Midwestern plains that are home to Purdue.

Qu knows well that China suffers the effects of high population density. “China is facing a big problem with pollution,” she admits. Qu wanted her students to see for themselves the benefits of smart design that Chinese engineers have employed to address some of these environmental troubles. She also wanted her students to gain first-hand impressions of mistakes and poor practice.

“My time in China helped me realize how far ahead China and other countries are in green building design,” Cherry says. “And not only how far ahead they are, but how much of a necessity [green building design] is for them, and soon, the rest of the world.”

In addition to viewing some commercial and residential buildings in Shanghai and Beijing, students also toured Olympic sites in Beijing such as the Bird’s Nest. At the Water Cube, the famous site of Michael Phelps’s history-making swims, students were addressed by Hongtao Yi, the general project manager for the site.

In summation of their trip, students were required to complete a final report, touching on sustainable building practice, Chinese culture, and even suggestions to improve the program. Cherry was inspired to focus on some key concepts that made an impression on him during the trip. “I broke the technical part down into several sections,” he says. “Ways energy could be saved via better cooling and heating, energy-saving techniques, using more efficient lighting, methods for conserving water, and more efficient land-use strategies.”

Cherry’s take-home lessons will surely benefit him as he plans to pursue a master’s degree in civil engineering. They might also ultimately contribute to good civil engineering practice in this country.