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Our global footprint: How faculty, staff and student connections extend around the world

Bob Lorenz and students in Japan

Bob Lorenz walks eagerly to a favorite spot—a wall of photos of faculty, staff and students associated with the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC)—in the Mechanical Engineering Building. Among those photos are the faces of international students and visiting scholars, and Lorenz traces invisible lines between himself, former students who have returned as visiting faculty, and then to students they, in turn, have brought to the university.

The scenario is the same for virtually every faculty member in every College of Engineering department—and Lorenz’s wall is just a single snapshot of the network of engineers that extends from the college around the globe. “It’s all through people, through those connections, that things really happen,” says Lorenz.

A worldwide family

Time-zone-spanning Skype calls and international conferences certainly help engineering faculty like Lorenz (above, center), the Mead Witter Foundation-Consolidated Papers Professor of Controls Engineering in mechanical engineering and the WEMPEC co-director, collaborate with engineers everywhere from Japan to Spain to Mexico.

Many of those collaborations start with a personal connection. For example, a Fulbright fellow who studied on the engineering campus in fall 2012 chose UW-Madison after hearing Lorenz speak in Aachen, Germany. “He is the son of a person who received his doctorate in Aachen when I was there as a visiting professor. So I knew his dad, I knew his family, and I knew this particular boy when he was a baby,” says Lorenz. “He came up after the talk to say, ‘I want to work with you. That sounds exciting!’ It wasn’t just that he has this bias based on his family connection, but it’s special when you can make that kind of connection.”

Continuing those personal relationships means that a few years down the line, students who go on to work in global companies remain connected through research partnerships with UW-Madison. Lorenz says that’s part of a culture of openness WEMPEC faculty cultivate—and one that mirrors other effective models for international collaboration. “That exposure to the engineering community abroad allows us to showcase the research advances and instructional innovations happening on our campus,” says Giri Venkataramanan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of WEMPEC.

That, in turn, opens all sorts of possibilities: easier recruitment of top-tier graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, opportunities for UW-Madison graduates to join international research teams and work abroad after finishing their degrees, and deeper ties to companies and universities around the world. But, a broader world view might be the most valuable result. “We gain new perspectives on solving problems, informed by the diverse background of our researchers,” says Venkataramanan.

Faculty often take their collaborations on the road and, true to the Wisconsin Idea, they apply their knowledge and expertise worldwide. For example, Venkataramanan has helped groups set up wind turbine power systems in Brazil, Turkey and in the highlands of Scotland. Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor José Pincheira conducted research in his native Chile following a devastating earthquake in 2010, while CEE Professor Jamie Schauer regularly collaborates with partners in the Middle East to study and control air pollution in that region, and elsewhere. Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tim Osswald is among a group of partners developing curriculum for the Plastindia International University in the state of Gujarat, one of the largest plastics manufacturing regions in India. And Biomedical Engineering Professor Emeritus John Webster has given lectures in and developed courses and laboratories for universities in many Asian countries, including China, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. 

Students hiking in Leticia, Colombia

The international perspective

China, in particular, is becoming an increasingly larger player in the global economy. And since 2008, the College of Engineering summer program hosted by Zhejiang University has enabled UW-Madison engineering students to immerse themselves in the country’s culture.

During the eight-week program, students live and attend classes taught by UW-Madison faculty at the university, located in Hangzhou, China. “Some programs range from 18 to 22 students,” says Laura Grossenbacher, who directs the college Technical Communications Program and has taught part of the program for three of its six years. ”We have an even bigger group going in summer 2013, pushing 30.”

Limin Qiu, vice dean of the Department of Energy Engineering and a professor of cryogenics at Zhejiang University, places a strong value on the flow of skills and ideas between the UW-Madison group and his own students. Grossenbacher helps them improve their English skills for writing technical articles, and in turn, Chinese students help UW-Madison students acclimate to the culture of China. “Our students will go out into the city with the Chinese students, learning about the city, practicing rudimentary Mandarin with them as much as they can, eating with them, having all kinds of good fun with them,” says Grossenbacher.

New foods and thrilling stories aside, the students gain a vital skill: They better connect with the context in which they will be solving problems. “You have to have a more global perspective if you’re giving a presentation in China about solar energy,“ says Grossenbacher. “They’re really into solar, they’re really into wind, and they’ll have all kinds of questions and feedback based on different assumptions.”

The China program is just the tip of the proverbial world iceberg for UW-Madison engineering students. The college International Engineering Studies and Programs (IESP) office, which administers the program, also offers study-abroad programs to locations around the world. And, well on their way to forging connections of their own, 138 UW-Madison engineering students visited 30 different countries—Vietnam, France, Hungary, Denmark and Morocco, just to name a few—in the 2011-2012 academic year.

Each semester abroad affords students a unique opportunity to expand their horizons and make the world feel a little smaller and more familiar. “I think that taking classes with students from completely different backgrounds and discussing the class content with them brings a really different perspective to any topic,” says Meghan Anderson, a biomedical engineering junior who received the Whitaker Scholarship to support her international studies.

Studying alongside Czech students while spending a semester in Prague, Anderson quickly came to understand how much she had to learn from her multicultural classmates. “Experiencing other cultures helps you to understand your own culture more, which is particularly good for engineering students, who will be in charge of identifying problems and fixing them,” she says.

That wider world view is a key component of an engineering student’s education, particularly when it comes time to prove themselves more well-rounded—and more hirable—engineers, says Amanda Hammatt, director of IESP. “Students who go abroad come back with a skillset that companies and recruiters are interested in. They’re better at problem solving, maneuvering through unfamiliar systems—academic, communications or cultural,” she says.

Justin Marks, a 2011 mechanical engineering alumnus now working for Siemens in Trondheim, Norway, says living and working alone in an unfamiliar country allowed him to grow personally and afforded him experience that demonstrates to employers that he can thrive anywhere. “It taught me how to embrace the unknown and step outside my comfort zone,” says Marks. “I think learning to embrace the unknown has opened many opportunities for me because it has shown me that just going for it always leads to positive experiences.”

Students who travel abroad also begin to see how global their lives on campus already are. “When they return to Madison, they realize how many international students we have on campus—and the fact that they have maybe never even reached out to them or spoken to them, even when they are in the same classes,” says Hammatt.

Think globally, act locally

Training global engineers doesn’t necessitate traveling the world. Rather, UW-Madison engineering students can immerse themselves in a wealth of experiences right on campus. In InterEngr 102: Introduction to Society’s Engineering Grand Challenges, for example, engineering freshmen learn about global problems their generation will address as the engineers of tomorrow. “The categories of design constraints—political, social, economic, ethical—are not unique to global challenges,” says Susan Hagness, the Philip Dunham Reed professor of electrical and computer engineering.

But, says Hagness, as students learn to consider those constraints in a context other than their own, they grow closer to becoming engineers who can solve problems anywhere in the world.

Amit Nimunkar’s students consider issues related to cost—not just the cost of the research in Madison, but also affordable manufacturing costs for people in other parts of the world. As a UW-Madison graduate student, Nimunkar helped found the UW-Madison chapter of Engineering World Health, a student organization dedicated to applying engineering students’ skills to address health issues in other countries.

Now Nimunkar is an interdisiciplinary biomedical engineering instructor who encourages students to get involved in world health issues. He emphasizes that helping people in less fortunate parts of the world allows students to make a difference, expand their world view, and gain important engineering skills along the way. “We’re teaching students not to just look at a textbook or Internet source, but to actually talk to people,” says Nimunkar. “To benefit from their real life experiences in all these different countries.”

Other student organizations, including Engineers Without Borders, enable students to work with citizens in communities around the world on solutions to basic challenges, such as finding clean water or collecting wastewater. And undergraduates who have a particularly global focus can earn a certificate in international engineering.

Learning to connect with people who have differing expertise, backgrounds and experiences is critical to forging lifelong connections. Perhaps nowhere is that better illustrated than in the Polymer Engineering Center, a melting pot of international and U.S. undergraduate and graduate students who are working together to develop next-generation composite materials.

Rattling off the home countries of his international students—five from Columbia, one from Mexico, seven from Germany—Osswald, who co-directs the Polymer Engineering Center, pauses to offer a Venezuelan chocolate. “These were my favorite growing up, and the student who just arrived today brought these here for me,” he says.

Osswald maintains a friendly, casual environment for his students. “Those students become ambassadors for the university,” says Osswald. “Over time, they become good contacts for research as well.”

As an example, Osswald cites alumni who now work at VW and Ford in composite research. Those former students have become critical to his research partnerships with those companies. A good rapport, starting with something as simple as a warm greeting and a chocolate, goes a long way.

The benefits multiply as students from different parts of the world come together to solve problems in his lab. The students’ skills are complementary: For example, U.S. plastics students tend to work heavily with simulation and computational analysis; German students spend more time rapidly building prototype devices. And the students end up teaching each other. “Engineering is different in different places,” says Osswald.

Collaborating across continents

Lorenz’s wall of photos is one of many faculty “family trees” of alumni colleagues from all over the world, whose relationships with faculty, staff and students now link them to the College of Engineering.

The freedom to be open, to share and forge bonds with anyone willing to connect with the university, even through as little as a handshake, makes it hard to keep track of them all, but that culture of sharing is vital to the Wisconsin Idea. “When we travel, we try to share,” says Lorenz. “Sharing knowledge and sharing excitement? That’s a very welcoming way to behave.” 

Mark Riechers
5/13/2013