Engineering virtual connections and collaborations

Samantha Chavanic
June 24, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program, collaborating virtually across time zones and cultures is at the core of its educational offerings. Pre-pandemic, the program’s course ENGR 422: Leadership of International Virtual Engineering Teams provided Penn State students with the opportunity to develop cross-cultural engineering leadership skills through virtual project-based learning. The course concluded in a Maymester trip where students would meet in person with their international team members and project stakeholders to prototype and test their projects.

Due to COVID-19 and the University’s cancellation of most international and domestic educational travel for the 2020-21 academic year, ELD students could not complete the traditional ENGR 422 culminating experience this year. But ELD faculty members applied the same international virtual collaboration concepts taught in the course to provide students with educational and culturally enhancing opportunities.

In spring 2021, ELD offered two sections of ENGR 422 — one paired with students from the Belgium Campus ITversity in South Africa and one paired with students from the University of Sydney in Australia.

Jesse McTernan, assistant teaching professor of engineering design, explained how students began engaging with their South African counterparts from the first day of the spring semester, exercising leadership skills and applying engineering concepts and skills to solve real-world challenges.

“Through in-class discussions, project collaboration and the personal friendships that developed, students from both universities took a virtual trip to another hemisphere and crossed seven time zones,” he said.

During course discussions and project work, students shared stories and experiences of how their culture helped shaped who they are.

“As we all come together to address engineering challenges, students and faculty engage in multicultural discovery and self-reflection, building a shared empathy and common goal culminating with physical prototypes and engagement with the project sponsor,” McTernan said. “Students leave the class with a connection that transcends distance and time.”

Through a partnership with Ehssan Sakhaee of the University of Sydney, Amy Freeman, director of the Millennium Scholars Program and associate research professor in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs, coordinated course projects focused on the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. The partnership brought 13 Penn State students, 130 University of Sydney students and eight University of Maryland students together in an international engineering experience. As part of the course, the students virtually toured the U.N. Headquarters in New York City and engaged with experts who have positively impacted the world.

“Working with international students on such a great project allowed me to broaden my world from the seat in my bedroom,” said Hannah Prissman, a University of Sydney engineering student. “In a world of uncertainty and limited communication, I felt seen and heard by my new friends. A great sense of empowerment was felt among us students as we were given the platform and confidence to create and solve world problems.”

Kelli Wozniak, a recent mechanical engineering and ELD minor alumna, explained how the course provided her with a unique experience, as she had never worked on an international team before.

“I was the only American in my group of six students, so it was definitely an eye-opening experience to be on a team where I was the foreigner,” she said. “I was encouraged to constantly reflect on my experience during class, and in doing so, I was able to notice indirect, and sometimes even non-verbal, cultural differences.”

Wozniak said once she became comfortable with these cultural differences and within her group, she adjusted how she interacted within the group to improve as a teammate, leader and student.  

“After experiencing the Australian students’ opportunistic mindset and noticing how quick they were to get past conflict, I pushed myself to be more empathetic and hopeful when working on the project," Wozniak said. "This mindset even transferred to my other schoolwork. I plan to continue this optimism when working in teams as I start my professional career.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 24, 2021