‘Seeing it in practice’: Engineering students learned around the world in summer experiences

International Experience students visited the CS Energy Callide Power Station – Callide Oxyfuel Project, a joint venture of Australian, French and Japanese industries and governments. The project aims to apply carbon-capture technology to an existing coal-fired power station to produce low-emissions electricity generation. (Credit: Ruth Chen)

At Washington University in St. Louis, students in the School of Engineering & Applied Science learn more than how to be an engineer. With opportunities to go abroad to get hands-on experience beyond what they learn in the classroom, they also learn to be leaders in a global society.

Sixteen WUSTL students went to Brisbane, Australia, for the International Experience program, sponsored by the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering and the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP).

The International Experience visits a different country each summer, in collaboration with MAGEEP partner universities, providing students with opportunities to learn how other countries handle energy and environmental challenges. The international trip is part of course EECE 401, International Experience in Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, which includes pre-program seminars in the spring, the summer trip, and a fall course to complete follow-up projects and presentations.

The trip included lectures at the University of Queensland (UQ) in aquatic engineering, solar and geothermal energy, wastewater treatment, carbon dioxide sequestration, biofuel development, electricity market and the economic and social impact of energy and environmental development.

In addition, the group visited the UQ’s solar array; a biofuel generation lab, including algae ponds; several labs; the Rio Tinto Boyne Smelter; and a coal mine, in addition to some recreational trips. The students also prepared a presentation on what they learned.

Pratim Biswas, PhD, department chair and the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor, who accompanied the students on the second half of the trip, said it was a great opportunity to see things in full scale.

“Here, the students are in a classroom learning all the theory, but they got to see it in practice,” he said. “They could see the entire supply chain in the energy domain, from the mines where the coal comes from, how it is transported, how it’s shipped internationally, then in use at the power plant. They also got to see some new technology-based power generation that we don’t have here in the United States.”

Hanna Newstadt, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, said she was interested in learning about chemical engineering from a different perspective.

“One of the big things I came away with was the different resources available in Australia,” Newstadt said. “They are very dependent on coal, and they have a lot of uranium that they don’t use. It was very interesting to see the energy profile compared to that in the United States.”

Jessica Rudnick, a junior majoring in environmental earth sciences, in Arts & Sciences, said she was impressed by some of the technologies she saw in use.

“I really liked the algae ponds at the UQ research facility,” she said. “They plan to couple the open algae reactor with an agriculture system, and that’s something I never thought of.”

Rudnick said the visit to the open strip coal mine left a lasting impression.

“I’d never seen anything like that before – it ripped open my heart,” Rudnick said. “It was an amazing sight – it gave you a sense of the scale and the size of energy production. It was terrible, but really amazing as to how powerful humans can be to create these canyons and mountains.”

Newstadt, who this summer worked in the lab of Jay Turner, PhD, associate professor and director of undergraduate programs, through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, said the trip was a great experience.

“It’s very different from learning in the classroom,” she said. “I feel like I have more direction in what I want to do after college.”

The course and the trip are led by Ruth Chen, PhD, professor of practice, director of the International Experience Program and of the master of engineering program in Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering. Chen, who has led five prior International Experience trips, says this year’s trip had high-quality classroom instruction coupled with site visits related to the lectures.

“We try to learn from the strength of each school and each country and take home how they solve their energy and environmental challenges,” Chen said. “The students bring home different perspectives that will be useful pointers for working in energy and environmental challenges in the United States. They are going to be very good engineers and world citizens.”

She credited Chris Greig, director of the University of Queensland Energy Initiative, for the successful outcome of the 16-day trip.
“He has tremendous experience and connections, he understands our curriculum, and he was able to stretch the students in a direction that’s comfortable for them,” Chen said.

Grieg works closely with Richard Axelbaum, PhD, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, on an international network of universities collaborating to develop innovative ways to cleanly burn coal for energy. Axelbaum also accompanied the students on the first part of the trip.

Grieg said he was so impressed by the group that he is considering developing a similar program for the University of Queensland.
“I think the students gained a new perspective on global energy markets and environmental challenges through both their lectures at UQ and the industry site visits,” Grieg said. “They would have been particularly struck by the level of investment in energy commodity export capacity, which is very different scenario to the USA.

“I found the Wash. U. students to be very enthusiastic, engaging and eager to learn both in relation to the energy and environment content but also in relation to the cultural and geographic characteristics of Australia,” Grieg said. “I was particularly struck by their politeness and genuine appreciation of everything UQ arranged for them.”

On some of the longer bus rides between locations, Biswas and Chen gave interactive lectures to the students on topics such as career options and choices. Also, after each visit to a facility and on the ferry to classes, the students and professors discussed what they saw.

Seven students stayed in Brisbane until mid-August in internships, working on supplying solar energy to the outback, water treatment, biofuel, seam gas extraction, environmental remediation and nanotechnology.

The next International Experience trip will be to Singapore in 2014. Students will work with National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale NUS.

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Helping children with cerebral palsy

In late May, Frank Yin, MD, PhD, the Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, took a group of five rising seniors majoring in biomedical engineering on a two-week trip to Hong Kong and China. They worked with students from Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) learning to fit and make custom orthotics for young children with cerebral palsy in rural China.

The students had one week of training at HKPU, traveled to the Mei Zhou Rehabilitation Center in China to take castings for the orthotics, then traveled back to Hong Kong to make them. Once complete, they went back to the clinic to present the finished orthotics to the children and to make sure they fit correctly.

While the WUSTL students knew the trip had a service component, working with the children and their parents had a big impact on them.
Nathan Brajer, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering who is planning to go into medicine, says the trip was a good opportunity to participate in hands-on work that had the potential to help others.

“I learned how important it is to develop a trusting relationship with the people you’re providing health care to,” Brajer said. “When we were trying to form molds of the children’s limbs, many became scared and kicked and screamed and cried. All of this kept us from making accurate molds, which was a very important part of making the orthotics. Once we learned how to build trust with the kids, help them understand what we were doing and calm them, all of the technical parts of the process became much easier.”

Sumeet Shah, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, said the WUSTL group also learned to work as a team during the three days they had to build 40 pairs of orthotics.

“We had an assembly line process, and those were rough days,” he said. “But we got a lot done. We had time to absorb and understand what we were supposed to do, and it was great to work together as a team with the HKPU students.”

Seul Ah Kim, who had spent the prior semester studying in Hong Kong, said she learned several things.

“I was a bit surprised by these patients’ energy since most of them had quite severe cerebral palsy,” she said. “Many of them had no control over their bodies, yet they had a great positive energy. The trip also changed my perspective of people with disabilities.”

Brajer recalled a defining moment on the trip.

“My best experience on the trip was bringing back a finished orthotic to one child in particular, whom I had worked with during our first trip to the clinic, and seeing the look of joy on his face and his mother’s face,” Brajer said. “Seeing how much it meant to them really gave me an unparalleled feeling of accomplishment.”