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An Early STEP Forward for Pre-freshmen Engineering Students

Author: Rachael Tan, Payton Case, Zoe Marcus, Zachary Lederman, and Andrew Lake
This past summer, 21 rising Purdue freshman spent two weeks in China under the Short Term Engineering Program Abroad (STEP-Abroad), a collaboration this year between the school of Engineering Education and the office of Global Engineering Programs and Partnerships (GEP2).

This is the second year since its first introduction by GEP2 in 2017 in which students visited both China and Japan. “This year we were very fortunate to have Dr. Tamara Moore on the STEP-Abroad China program as a co-instructor. Our students learned so much about their upcoming freshmen year by traveling with one of our ENGR 131 professors,” said the program lead and instructor Dr. Wei Qiu, who manages the Asia Pacific student mobility Programs at GEP2. 

STEP-Abroad China students with Ms. Ding, a calligraphy instructor who has taught them to write “happiness ()” in calligraphy and paint lotus with Chinese brush painting techniques.

Purdue is unique in that we are one of the few universities that offer this program to rising engineering undergraduates. According to freshman Zoe Marcus, the trip was valuable enough to sway her college decision. “My ability to go to China before even setting foot in a classroom was one of my biggest deciding factors in choosing Purdue,” Marcus said, “Allowing pre-freshmen to enjoy opportunities normally only allotted to older students, it allows the student body to grow and mature into a more diverse and understanding community. Purdue’s ability to foster growth and excitement in these students before they even set foot on campus is incredible, and no other university in the nation offers pre-freshman engineering students the opportunity to study abroad.”  

During this program, students had the opportunity to explore China in a multitude of ways. From the Bund of Shanghai to tea houses and Hutongs (narrow alleyways) in Beijing, pre-freshmen engineering students explored cultural, historical, and engineering sites while exploring their future careers and building friendships that will last a lifetime. Students went on visits to interesting sites including the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall of China, Eli Lilly, and NineBot-Segway among other locations; and students were also able to enjoy their free time as they will. For Marcus, visiting Eli Lilly helped her understand what she might want for her future as she plans on majoring in Chemical Engineering. “It was incredible to see where I could be five, ten years from now. Visiting Lilly gave me a goal to work towards.  I am grateful for the experience to visit such an incredible company in an amazing country.”

Students work on a case with Eli Lilly Suzhou engineers: Ms. Xun Zhou (Purdue alumna) and Mr. Brendan Butler (A Purdue senior and an intern at Eli Lilly Suzhou, China).
Professor Ma (left) gives the STEP-Abroad China students a lecture on the origins of Chinese culture and beliefs, providing key contextual info for many of the subsequent site visits.

In addition to gaining a better understanding of engineering career paths, the program manages to introduce students to important skills they will be using throughout their college career early on. Some of the more significant things students become prepared for are: time management, living in entirely new environments, and professional interactions. Students are tasked with many responsibilities in STEP-Abroad China, with numerous events taking place throughout any given day and six “inquiry logs” to write afterwards throughout the week. One of the most important skills the students learned, however, was the ability to get along with people they have never met before.

The opportunity to cultivate friendships before attending university is extremely valuable. Students who took part in this program faced an environment where most could not speak the language and with students they had just met, which can be daunting coming right out of high school. According to freshman Zachary Lederman, the experiences, whether extremely fun or anxiety-inducing, allowed them to create tight bonds. “One of the most impactful experiences in the Purdue STEP-Abroad China trip were the subways,” he said, “Our meal ended pretty late and by the time they got to the station there were 10 minutes until the last train. We had to act quickly and efficiently because we didn’t want to walk six miles in Beijing at midnight, so we managed to acquire a dozen tickets and sprint across a Chinese subway terminal. From then on we’ve become a lot closer and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Students take a break during their exploration of an ancient engineering wonder - the Great Wall.
Students traveled to the top of the Shanghai Tower to learn about the green building technologies.
Lederman (left) and freshman August Shrader, prepare to ride a Beijing Hutong pedicab to visit the old alleyways in central Beijing.

Sophomore Vivian Guo, who participated in the program in 2017, agrees that the program is incredibly valuable for creating friendships. “One of the most important things that I learned on the trip is the people I met in the program. Coming from Carmel, IN it’s really easy to be sheltered from global and domestic issues. But after getting to know other students, from the program and at the international universities, I was a little more exposed to reality,” she said, “I still talk to a couple of people that I studied abroad with.”

This program would never have taken off without the efforts of GEP2, in particular Jill Churchill, the Short Term Study Abroad Coordinator for the College of Engineering. According to Churchill, the process was a mix of persistence and good timing, “The Study Abroad office had started a pre-freshman program to Peru, and when I came to global engineering 6 years ago, I noticed that a lot of students who were going on the prefreshmen program were engineering students. So I thought, there’s obviously an interest in engineering students travelling before they come to Purdue, so why don't we try to do this?”

Churchill, along with many of the students who have participated in this STEP-Abroad China program, hope that there will be an expansion of prefreshman opportunities much like this. “Other schools within engineering are interested in doing it, our goal was to try to show many different types of engineering, whether it be civil, mechanical, electrical, ancient engineering with new engineering,” she said, “It’s a great way for students to meet new people within their major, to see all of the different types of engineering that's out there and also a perfect opportunity to work on your intercultural skills, because that's very important at Purdue.”

Students try on some robotic devices designed by the AI labs of Shanghai Jiao Tong Universities.
Freshman Zachary Lederman (right), takes a photo with his Beijing Foreign Studies University student partner. During the tour, students learned about what it is like to live as a Chinese University student.