Engineering team projects are going global

April 21, 2015

Designing a real-world solution for a real-world problem is the culminating experience for engineering students at Penn State. As part of the capstone design class, students work in teams to solve issues put forth by industry sponsors. Since 2010, mechanical engineering students can choose to work with students from around the world.

Global capstone design teams consist of Penn State and international students working together to complete a project. This year the partner universities were Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) in China and Chalmers University in Sweden.

“The experience mimics a real life project at a global company, with two teams working in two locations,” said Francesco Kuranapatabendige, a Penn State mechanical engineering senior working on a team with Chalmers University.

This is the first year that Penn State partnered with Chalmers University for the global capstone design projects. Two teams of six students, a mix of mechanical and industrial engineers, worked with Volvo to address issues that affect fuel efficiency in tractor-trailers. One team worked to reduce airflow through the radiator and grille opening and the other worked to make adjustable roof mounted fairings to direct airflow and reduce drag.

Typically students interact through video conferencing and e-mail, but this year, six Chalmers University students were able to come to the U.S. for one week in April to work alongside the Penn State students. Throughout the semester, students at both universities were able to create prototypes using 3-D printing, but the final design was built at Penn State. By coming to the U.S. Chalmers students were able to more effectively troubleshoot small details they might not have noticed during remote interactions.

Penn State and Chalmers students spent the week working on their project, meeting with representatives from Volvo, and participating in a mini design showcase. The students have been collaborating remotely since January, but as soon as they were all in the same room together their efficiency increased dramatically.

Of course, it wasn’t all work -- the students attended a baseball game, visited the creamery, and toured campus while they were here.

“Having the ability to physically meet team members was fun,” said Max Engvall, a Chalmers University mechanical engineering student. “We were able to bond.”

By collaborating with international team members, students learn to communicate with others whose first language may not be English. They also benefit from diverse skills and viewpoints. In addition, these partnerships allow students to tap into resources, such as software, that are not available at Penn State.

“The students receive an outstanding educational experience by having the opportunity to learn about diverse cultures and learn how to overcome the design challenges that exist in today’s global companies,” said Jason Moore, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and capstone course instructor.

However, working on a global capstone team brought a unique set of challenges. Teams learned it’s not easy to communicate across the globe. Video conferencing technologies are not perfect; delays mean the flow of conversation is not natural. Students could also email and text if they needed quick answers, but the time difference often left them waiting until the next day for a reply, delaying the project.

“If you have an idea that’s hard to explain in words, it’s often easier to draw a quick sketch,” said Axel Svensson, a Chalmers University mechanical engineering student. But that’s not an option when you are not working side-by-side. In order to succeed students had to adjust their communication style.

Although the Chalmers students headed home, the project is not quite finished. There are still some details the students will have to work out remotely to complete the projects before they display them in the Engineering Design Showcase on May 4. But before they left, the students got a chance to jointly show off their projects in a mini showcase at the Learning Factory.

The department of mechanical and nuclear engineering partners with universities in other countries to offer students an international experience without the cost and time-commitment of travel. Previous partner universities include Seoul National University and National University of Singapore. In addition to renewing partnerships with these two universities, Penn State is also launching pilot programs with Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (fall 2015) and University of Melbourne (spring 2016).

Last Updated April 21, 2015