GEARE (Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education) salvages the German study abroad experience with a virtual platform.
Purdue’s partnership with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany is the oldest within the GEARE (Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education) program. The first cohort of students studied at KIT in 2003.
Having a long-standing relationship with the university worked in Purdue’s favor after nearly all GEARE students were abruptly flown back to the United States in early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those in the German program were in a unique situation since the academic year is set up differently than in most countries. Students complete an internship from January through April and then fulfill the study abroad semester from April through August.
“They had to come home at the tail end of their internship and had to forgo the semester of study abroad,” said Joe Tort, associate director of Global Professional Practice in the College of Engineering.
“One of the highlights of the study abroad program is an integrated machine design course where Purdue students work with KIT students on teams. Those same KIT students come to Purdue the following spring and again have the opportunity to work with our students on design teams,” Tort said.
“This is a great opportunity for our students to learn how to work with engineers who have different perspectives and who have been trained differently.”
With the in-person experience off the table, “Our office acted quickly to provide a virtual global design team course in an attempt to help salvage some of the experiences students were missing,” Tort said.
Eight of the 13 students who were supposed to be studying at KIT were able to take part in the online opportunity.
Mechanical engineering juniors Julian Tessarzyk, of Carmel, and Alec Vucsko, of New Lenox, Ill., collaborated with three German students on a project to design the powertrain for a hybrid tractor.
“One of the largest differences between the American and German curriculums is that they still hand-draw technical drawings,” Tessarzyk said.
At Purdue, ME students are blessed to use the latest CAD software. “We put a big focus on CAD whenever we need to showcase a part or figure out how things will be fitted,” Vucsko said.
“As strange as it may seem,” Tessarzyk said, “the largest takeaway I have from the drawing experience is the attention to detail necessary to design an exceptional product.”
Vucsko said working with the Germans was interesting and fun, although they “learn a pretty different set of skills than we do, so adapting to their ways took a lot of effort.
“They are very time-oriented and definitely dedicated to their work. Learning to draw is a major part of their studies,” Vucsko said. “This meant that Julian and I completed the CAD portion of the project, and the Germans walked us through how to correctly draw the systems.”
Their German teammates were accommodating. Not only were they competent in English, but also highly committed to making the time difference work.
“There were times where the German students would stay up until 9 p.m. meeting with us. It was such dedication that led to great success among our team,” Tessarzyk said.
The group developed a rapport that went beyond the project, Vucsko shared. “We would actually spend some time having fun instead of just working. I think that made the experience a lot better than it would have been otherwise.”
Francisco Montalvo, assistant director of Global Projects, completed the KIT machine design course as a Purdue student 13 years ago and marveled at how Tessarzyk and Vucsko adapted.
“It was surprising to me to learn that the challenges and highlights of the class had nothing to do with the remote delivery but with the content and material itself, just like when the class takes place in person.
“I have to say the students’ commitment to the GEARE experience is commendable given that they took part in this class as a 100% voluntary effort, even while taking other courses,” Montalvo said.
Tessarzyk was working at an internship at Audi when he was brought home. He was hopeful that he might be able to stay and complete his time there but learned employees would begin working from home the following week.
“This summer has been a combination of stress and relaxation unlike ever before,” he said, explaining that he ordinarily would have worked in the family business but couldn’t fit it in. “I ended up taking three courses online in addition to the virtual global design project.”
As Tessarzyk embarks on his senior year at Purdue, he said he plans to pursue a master’s degree in engineering management. “My dream is to work for any automotive manufacturer in the division responsible for designing new models off of the heritage of older generation cars. For example, how Ford has designed the new Ford Bronco upon its ‘Bronco Heritage.’”
Vucsko, who hopes to work in the auto industry after graduating in May 2021, also had to leave his internship early and take three online summer classes in addition to juggling the KIT project.
“The program moving to this format is, in my opinion, the best of a bad situation,” Vucsko said.
Tessarzyk was surprised that the format worked as well as it did.
“The project has shown me that success over a remote platform is a two-way street. Not only was it important to bridge the culture gap, but it was even more important to build relationships with our team members,” he said, adding that they shared numerous casual discussions not related to the work and had a couple of Zoom hangouts that broke apart into chat rooms.
“It is precisely these experiences,” Montalvo said, “that are challenging and put you out of your comfort zone and build your skills and character as a true global engineer.”
GEARE program perseveres despite challenges posed by pandemic
There were some tense moments this spring when Purdue Engineering staff was tasked with quickly getting 77 students, who were divided among nine countries, home to the United States in the wake of a worsening pandemic.
The students, part of the GEARE (Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education) program, had begun the spring 2020 semester abroad, either studying or interning, and were not keen on returning home, said Joe Tort, associate director of Global Professional Practice in the College of Engineering.
“It was a very tough decision,” he said. “I never knew if we were doing the right thing. There was definitely a great deal of panic and late nights and consternation about what we should do.”
In early March, news reports outlining the rapid worldwide spread of COVID-19 were daunting. Fear of food and product shortages resulted in rampant stockpiling, and store shelves were fast becoming bare.
“Students in study abroad programs are not regular citizens and are unable to stock up on stuff at the stores,” Tort said, adding that they typically can only buy a week’s worth of groceries and supplies at a time.
In addition, the Department of State had announced an impending Level 4 travel advisory, advising U.S. citizens to “arrange for immediate return to the United States,” which confirmed the decision.
GEARE staff had a special case in Ecuador, Tort said. “We learned on a Saturday that they were shutting down all air travel by Monday night. Students were spread out all over the country, some in the mountains.”
Francisco Montalvo, assistant director of Global Projects, was an invaluable asset in locating all of the students.
“Having grown up in Ecuador and South America, I knew how things can suddenly become unstable very quickly, and an apparently calm situation may lead you to be at risk,” he said. “In this case, the risk was for students to be locked in the country with the added concern of a rising pandemic. Immediate action was necessary.”
Montalvo quickly began communicating with George Chiu, assistant dean for Global Engineering Programs and Partnerships, Mike Brzezinski, dean of International Programs, and Provost Jay Akridge.
“We were all on the phone with the students late that night and early the next day until we made sure the students were aboard the plane that was bringing them back to the U.S.”
Students studying in China, Tort said, were brought home in early February.
After getting all of the students home, the next pertinent issue was advising students on how to make up for lost participation abroad.
Proving that Purdue Engineering students are decidedly committed and goal-oriented, Tort shared that several students voiced their willingness to do whatever necessary to satisfy the international portion of the GEARE program.
“We’ve had many students say they are willing to push back their graduation dates in order to allow more time to get this experience.”
GEARE is a three-year program in which students earn a global engineering minor. They fulfill a minimum of 12 credits of a foreign language, study abroad for a semester, complete one domestic and one international internship, complete a global design team project, and satisfy their international internship during their junior year.
“The majority of the students finished the spring semester online,” Tort said. “Internship requirements were waived, and we are trying to help the students affected get those experiences.”
It’s too soon to predict when international travel will be approved, Tort said, adding that he is “hopeful we can still send students abroad in the spring.”
If the global portion of the GEARE program remains unsafe, however, Tort’s staff will be prepared with alternatives.
“We are working with many of our international partners to create experiential programs so that our students can still have an opportunity to learn how to interact and work on projects.”
His team also is working with the School of Languages and Cultures to implement new curriculum to enhance skills and make up for missing out on full-immersion foreign language while abroad.
“We’ll make the best of it.”