Global lab to foster communication among engineering students

November 11, 2010

University Park, Pa. — Beginning next spring, students and faculty in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering will be using a new global operations lab to collaborate with students at universities in other countries as well as corporate partners.

The global lab, located in 242 Leonhard Building on Penn State's University Park campus, was funded by a donation of $100,000 from IME alumnus Peter Del Pazzo and his wife, Angela, along with funds from the College of Engineering and Information Technology Services.

The lab was initially conceived by Amine Lehtihet, professor of industrial engineering. Lehtihet's primary aim was to prepare students for the global nature of industry and manufacturing. "We feel very strongly that our students should be aware that they're going to have to compete on a global basis now," he said. "They can't be thinking that they're only competing with the guy sitting next to them, because companies are going all around the world to find the best candidates they can."

One way the department is preparing students for their careers is to have them work together on projects with their counterparts in universities in countries including Japan, Korea, and China, as well as industry representatives, Lehtihet said. "Students need to know how other people think, how good they are, and what their working habits are."

Leland Engel, instructor of mechanical engineering, said that until this fall, to make it possible for student teams to communicate with teams overseas, the department used videoconferencing applications such as Adobe Connect and Skype, which were adequate for certain kinds of communication, but also had limitations. He said the improvements the new global lab will bring are large screens, increased bandwidth and speed, and an improved capability to share information.

The facility's videoconferencing system was custom designed by RPC Video with A/V integration completed by Xerox. The equipment, including high-definition cameras pointed at the podium, seating area, and workbench, is operated either by a touch screen monitor at the podium or a handheld wireless touch screen. Video and audio from the room can be fed to a portable videoconferencing unit that can be situated in any room in the building; it also can be fed to an overflow room on the first floor of the building that seats 90. The global lab itself seats 20.

Using the controls, a user can switch from sharing video from the room to sharing a computer screen. Any session can be recorded to DVD. The room features a projection screen as well as two large monitors on either side of the room.

Lehtihet said the fact that the portable unit can feed video from any Leonhard Building lab to the global lab and beyond "opens up tremendous opportunities." He said, "It has a camera so it can enable two-way communication and give a view of any laboratory activity."

Engel explained that now a student team can present a project while fielding questions from the other team. On the workbench in the lab, physical objects and procedures can be demonstrated. The high-end camera allows users to zoom in to show objects in sharp detail.

Ed DeMeter, professor of industrial engineering, also noted the improved capability to communicate and present, saying the new system is more like being in the same room together. He said another use for the room in addition to student teamwork would be to train students to use a piece of equipment. He said that until now, an instructor demonstrates the use of a device while twenty or so students are gathered around, perhaps not fully able to see or hear the full demonstration. Using the new facility, an instructor can demonstrate equipment at the workbench while the students can view the demonstration via a videoconference.

Lehtihet explained that his vision for the global lab includes more than just videoconferencing. He said he wants to create a "window on the world" for students. To emphasize a larger world view, world maps have been installed in the lab and in the future, clocks showing the time in various locations around the world will be added, as well as televisions showing selected broadcasts from other countries. He said he wants to capture students' attention and help them think in global terms and would also like to encourage them to learn foreign languages.

During the fall semester, said Lehtihet, IME faculty members will perform trial runs of the global lab's videoconferencing system and do any necessary troubleshooting, while fleshing out how they will run future course projects. In spring, they plan to launch two major projects with their international colleagues using the new system.

Last Updated June 22, 2011