The CBE summer capstone course is akin to a “bootcamp”—it’s a five-week experience that requires students to apply all of the theory and methodology they’ve learned to hands-on, challenging experiments in the lab. But for students who elect to take the course abroad, it has evolved into much more than that.
The summer lab started in the first half of 20th century, and in the 1980s, the department began offering the option to take it abroad at the University College London as well. Over the years, the department added options with labs in Oviedo, Spain, and Vienna, Austria. But it wasn’t till recently that students had the option of going to China.
In 2014, John Yin, a Vilas Distinguished Professor in chemical and biological engineering, led the first group of students to a Hangzhou, China, where they carried out their summer lab at the Zhejiang University. “Holding the lab abroad gives undergraduates the chance to not only get the lab experience, but have a cultural enrichment experience as well,” Yin says.
Hangzhou seemed like a natural choice for a new location—UW-Madison has had a longstanding research relationship with Zhejiang University, which was looking to expand its ties with the United States and broaden its overall impact. In addition, its laboratories typically go unused in summer, and therefore offered a perfect spot for UW-Madison students to engage in a lab experience that is both unique and essential to their engineering student careers.
Yet the benefits extend far beyond the lab.
“Going to a different place forces you to be more adaptive, especially when the people around you are speaking a different language and are from a very different culture,” says Yin. “Students are also learning rudimentary Chinese, and getting a chance to practice it.”
In some cases, Yin notes, students are exposed to new experimental apparatus as well. “Students are able to deal with more highly interfaced tools, distillation towers that are linked into computer controls, for example,” he says. “This past summer, they started doing virtual labs, where students get a chance to run their experiment and make initial mistakes in virtual reality, so they go in with a little more experience.”
For student Matthew Melvin, who grew up in the Milwaukee area, taking the summer lab in Hangzhou also meant going abroad for the first time.
“I loved China—I thought it was an amazing experience, and it was totally different from anything I’d experienced before,” he says.
The lab is no less rigorous than its Madison counterpart—students are immersed in the lab environment eight hours a day, five days a week. They interact both with a UW-Madison professor—in this case, Yin—and professors and graduate students at the lab in China, conducting experiments, writing extensive lab reports and doing oral presentations. But they also have the opportunity to explore a new city, hear a new language, and be surrounded by a totally new culture. During his time in Hangzhou, Melvin climbed Huangshan (“Yellow Mountain”), and saw the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. He even stayed in China after the lab was over, traveling to Shanghai and a few other smaller cities.
In 2016, the CBE department offered another new lab—this time, in Hong Kong. Led by Senior Lecturer Rafael Chavez, 11 students attended the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to fulfill their lab requirements. The formation of the Hong Kong lab followed much the same path as the Hangzhou lab, building on an initial relationship with the university, and fulfilling the CBE department’s desire to have even more options for the growing number of CBE students at UW-Madison.
“For many students in engineering, taking classes for credit in other countries is too difficult, because of the transfer of credits,” Chavez says. “But this course is not too long, and allows a good amount of time to really experience a culture and understand the perspective of other people. I think that’s a really valuable experience for any engineering student.”
For those students, experience living abroad and meeting people unlike themselves also is a plus for their employers—and summer labs around the world give students a dual opportunity: to advance both their engineering and their global education.
Author: Lexy Brodt