Engineering Leadership course expands, fosters international collaboration

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- An ongoing effort that gives Penn State students the opportunity to work in international virtual teams has expanded to include another school, Taibah University in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

The course, International Leadership of Enterprise and Development (ILEAD), is offered through the College of Engineering's Engineering Leadership Development Program and is designed to emulate the global teams many engineering students will encounter after graduation.

Created in 2005, the class combines Penn State students in the engineering leadership development program with business students at Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary.

Using their interests and expertise in engineering and business, the international student teams consult on real-world projects from clients, based in various locations of the world, recruited by the faculty of cooperating universities.

The goal, said course instructor Andras Gordon, is to expose students to virtual teaming practice — collaborating with each other and project clients through video conference, email, text message and social media.

At the end of the semester, students have the option of traveling to Hungary to present their final reports and meet their collaborators in person. Students from this semester's class will arrive in Budapest by May 10.

The addition of students from Saudi Arabia's Taibah University introduces not only extra complexity to the virtual teams but another culture.

"It’s different from what we did years ago," Gordon said. "It’s much more challenging."

This spring marks Taibah's first full semester of participation in the ILEAD class. "Last year we were testing the collaboration," Gordon said.

The teams work on a variety of assignments that range from environmental efforts to community development programs to business plans for proposed products.

This semester, seven projects are shared among the three university teams, including a water pump driven by a wind turbine, bay oil distillation, solar panel cooling and a water flushing system. Five projects are tackled by bilateral international student teams and two projects involve students of all three universities.

Cody Dirlam, a junior in chemical engineering, said his team's bay oil project represents an opportunity to make a big difference in a developing economy.

"Bay oil is one of the biggest exports in Dominica," the Honesdale, Pa., native explained. "That’s how they make most of their money. Our main goal is to improve the distilling process."

The mission for the Penn State engineers is to examine the process and look for inefficiencies, including an analysis of heat transfer.

"How much wood is used in the heat loss?" he asked. The chemical engineer said his team hopes to help make the process more sustainable by not only reducing the amount of wood used in the boiling process, but finding uses for the byproducts.

"The product that comes out of distillation is a mix of water and oil, so you have to extract the oil and they throw away the water. Can the water be reused and can the leftover leaves be composted or even used as a fuel source?"

Meanwhile, the Corvinus students on Dirlam's team are focused on the sales and marketing of the bay oil.

"They’re working on selling the products," he said.

Though the various teams say their respective projects offer numerous technical hurdles, many of the students say one of their biggest challenges is learning to work with team members from other cultures.

Elaina Ripepi, a mechanical engineering sophomore, agreed that bridging the cultural barrier was sometimes difficult in her team's work on a solar panel cooling system.

She recounts one instance where the Americans misinterpreted what the Saudis meant. "They ordered this thing called a weather post that takes weather data and temperature measurements. They said the post was broken and we thought the device was broken. Instead, what they meant was the postal service lost the package."

Gordon said, "It's not easy for students, especially with strikingly different cultures, but it is personally rewarding for students when they manage to achieve their goals."

Ripepi said the fact that she and her teammate are women did not make working with the Taibah students any more difficult than normal.

"I think they considered our ideas more because we are women," she said. "They were very open to our interactions and suggestions."

Ripepi attributes some of her team's success to their efforts to get to know their Taibah counterparts better.

"We’ve been trying to learn more about each other," the Harrison City, Pa., native said.

Alaa Khalid Eid, an electrical engineering student at Taibah who worked with Penn State and Corvinus students on a hybrid electric vehicle project that integrates solar and wind energy, said he found the collaboration very fulfilling. "Generally it was good (because) we get the experience working on a project with students from another country to get the project done."

Xiaoyi Ma, a civil engineering student from Chengdu, China, agreed that the cross-cultural component is among the course's most exciting components.

"The experience is the most important thing," the Chengdu, China, native said. Ma's team is collaborating with Corvinus students on a wind-driven water pump project for an Israeli-Palestinian non-governmental organization, which is focused on developing energy and water systems for marginalized communities in the Palestinian territories.

Projects like this, said Gordon, open opportunities for students to work with clients in complex real-world environments.

Teammate Bálint Magyar, a senior in business administration and management at Corvinus, said, "The five of us get along remarkably smoothly. The problems we occasionally faced with differing mentalities were dwarfed by the random chit-chat sessions I had with the PSU students, where we talked about everything from culture and language to politics, school life and even gaming. Sharing and contrasting experiences from largely different (viewpoints) was quite a bit intriguing, as well as enjoyable."

Teammate Eddie Shen, a junior in computer science from Shanghai, China, agreed. "It's a precious chance to dive into an intercultural experience."

Magyar added, "For me, the personal ties created between the two PSU students and myself are possibly the greatest reward reaped, as well as the intercultural sensitivity of myself that I could hone further."

Despite the fact that Ma and Shen are foreign students studying in the United States, they're just as awed at the international experience as their classmates.

"This class tells us how big the world really is," Ma said.

Last Updated May 12, 2014