Class teams engineering leadership students with Hungarian university

Participating in an international experience traditionally means study abroad or a similar college program. But an engineering leadership course is letting students learn in a global context without having to leave the confines of campus.

The class, International Leadership of Enterprise and Development (ILEAD), teams students in Penn State's engineering leadership program with economics students at Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary, using the latest information technology available.

Taught by Andras Gordon, instructor in engineering design, and developed in 2005 by Rick Schuhmann, the Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership, the course turns the Penn State-Corvinus student teams into consultants, utilizing their combined expertise in engineering and business in real-world projects recruited by each university's faculty.

"They have to work in an international context," said Krisztian Csapo, an assistant professor of small business development at Corvinus. "Students are asked to go after a problem, solve it, make a solution and make market research."

The type of assignment can range from community development programs to sustainability efforts to business plans for proposed products.

Gordon says the tasks he and Schuhmann assign tend to have a more philanthropic goal. "They are more systems oriented, socially oriented, social development kinds of projects," the Hungarian native said. Last spring's ILEAD class worked on projects that included mushroom farms in Gaza, water bottle recycling in Haiti, Indian wine and Pakistani rose oil.

The Corvinus projects, on the other hand, often have a more entrepreneurial slant. Last year's class conducted marketing and feasibility studies for a waist warmer and a high-end replica cryptex similar to the device featured in "The Da Vinci Code."

This semester, student projects include investigating renewable energy and growing techniques for the Peruvian farming village of Quiscos; assessing oregano oil extraction technology and practices in Arequipa, Peru; and developing a business plan for a U.S.-Ethiopian company to purchase a Tanzanian machine shop.

"The goal for students is to learn what the problem is," Gordon said. "We keep preaching this to engineering students. It's crucial. If nothing else, they understood the problem."

In addition to grasping the problem, the students also have to contend with working and communicating with teammates who are an ocean away.

Like multinational companies with global partners, the Penn State-Corvinus team members don't get to meet each other face to face at the start of their projects.

Instead, their initial introductions are made through a Polycom videoconferencing system that allows the students to see and talk to one another while also sharing information such as PowerPoint slides.

At the beginning of ILEAD, the students are required to use the Polycom to converse with one another. "Initially we force them to talk as much as possible to understand, to learn, to communicate and work together," Gordon explained.

"The Polycom was an interesting way to team," said Matt Steiner, now a senior in mechanical engineering, who took the course last year. "I've never done it before."

The bulk of the work happens virtually, with the students augmenting their regular Polycom sessions with readily available consumer technologies such as Skype, FaceTime, Facebook, Google Docs, email, instant messaging and texting.

Adam Gyorgy, a Corvinus senior who took the course last year, marveled at how technology could allow far-flung teammates to communicate with one another.

"Our group was a little bit more difficult compared to the other groups because there were seven of us working together. To coordinate seven people, it’s almost impossible," he recounted. "I was in Vienna in a café, Hemit [Gandhi, a Penn State student]?it was Easter time?was in his home town [in India]. Some guys were at Penn State, somebody was here in Corvinus, so we were all spread out everywhere. I had my cell phone, and I could Skype from my cell phone.

"I was actually having this meeting from a café in Vienna—it was an amazing experience. I don't know how technology could develop this far. It made me discover there were no borders anymore. I never thought it could happen."

"They're not toys or gizmos," Gordon said about Skype and social networking. "They’re tools students can do something productive with."

Even with the bevy of technology at their fingertips, students said there were still communication challenges.

"There's a lot you have to communicate with people who directly interpret everything you say, so something you say can be miscommunicated," Steiner observed.

Gordon said that's one of the key lessons the American students quickly learn, that even though foreigners may have a working knowledge of English, Americans have to slow down their speech, articulate better and remove the slang in order to communicate properly with the Hungarians.

The collaboration also allows the Corvinus students to hone their acquired English skills with native speakers.

Csapo said, "It's good for the Hungarians to know how to handle Americans if they travel to the U.S., and it's good for Americans to know how to speak to people if they travel around the world."

Throughout the semester, the American-Hungarian teams work to analyze their projects, conduct feasibility studies, market analyses, investigate best practices and devise plans for their project sponsors.

One effort, the Haiti THREAD project, examined how to clean up the plastic water bottles that litter the country. Project sponsor THREAD proposed putting people to work to collect trash to turn into exportable fabric.

"There's an almost unlimited supply of plastic in Haiti," said team member Alyssa Joslin, now a mechanical engineering junior. "And two-thirds of the population don't have jobs."

The team had to consider issues such as educating Haitians about the benefits of recycling and sanitation, how to incentivize the population to collect used water bottles and what types of collection methods to use. Rather than simply giving Haitians cash, the team proposed giving people redeemable vouchers for the plastic bottles they turned in.

"The vouchers could be used for food, clothing and educational items. It would allow them to go to the store and redeem it for something that will help their lives," explained mechanical engineering senior Leigh Lesnick.

In designing their voucher system, the team also had to consider the possibility of fraud and corruption. To combat that, they proposed using bar codes on the vouchers to prevent duplication and counterfeiting.

Another project looked into how to improve small-scale mushroom cultivation by Arab women living in Gaza as a reliable food source and marketable local product.

The team, which also included a group of students in Gaza, benchmarked mushroom production in the U.S., China and Hungary, examining cultivation methods that required as little water and energy as possible.

In the end, the team recommended using autoclave bags for better sterilization, employing metal oil drums for pasteurization and encouraging Arab women to sell their mushrooms directly to the public, instead of specialized buyers, to increase support and awareness in the local community.

At the conclusion of the semester, the Penn State students have the option of traveling to Budapest to meet their Corvinus teammates.

Usually about half of the engineering leadership students make the choice to go to Hungary, Gordon said, but the 2011 class had an unusually large contingent with 14 of the course’s 21 students traveling.

"The students pay their own way. They pay for their flight and lodging," he stated.

For many of the Penn State students, it's their first time outside of the United States. Gordon, who's been a Penn State faculty member since 1999, said Hungary is ideal for first-time international travelers.

"It's still a developing part of the world and it's safe to go there," he said. "It's practically European. It's not as alien for students compared to other parts of the world, but it's still different. It's important to communicate, to connect with other cultures. It's different to engage and look into someone's eyes."

He added, "Many of the young people speak English anyhow."

But the trip isn't entirely a vacation. It's a week of cultural immersion, lectures in international economics and team building. And though there's time to take in many of Budapest's historic and cultural sites, the U.S.-Hungarian teams have a firm deadline to complete their final reports and polish their project presentations before the Penn State and Corvinus faculty.

"My favorite moment was coming out of the airport, seeing my partner and actually shaking his hand for the first time," said engineering science junior Joe Giordano. "That was really exciting because we put all this time into developing the relationship over telecom and to be able to physically look somebody in the face, it's really rewarding."

He continued, "Building a relationship over Skype or telecom is one of the hardest things, I think, to do in the business world. Communicating virtually is really difficult, especially at the beginning when you're strangers."

For Steve Garguilo, who participated in the 2008 class and now works in Europe with Johnson & Johnson to develop emerging markets, the course was a life-changing experience.

"My world view was very siloed in just thinking about Pennsylvania and the United States," he said.

Steiner agreed, adding, "[It gave me] a better world outlook as an engineer. I think sometimes people in the United States have blinders on to the world outside because all of our media is U.S.-centered. A lot of the companies I interact with, their products are centered on U.S. users. The ability to come out to Hungary, to see and interact with people from another culture and to see there's a lot going in the world is important for me as a designer and an engineer."

For photos of the engineering students' experience in Budapest, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatelive/sets/72157629423081617/

To watch a video about their experience, visit /video/151527/2013/02/08/video-no-title online.

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Last Updated February 29, 2012