“Good morning. Good evening. Good afternoon,” says Laura McCausland, an engineer at General Motors phoning in from Detroit to the final day of an engineering class at Virginia Tech. The students she speaks to are not just those seated in a classroom in Randolph Hall. They have also gathered in classrooms at four other universities in four different countries and across four time zones to present their final class project. And they have all worked closely with each other.
Welcome to Introduction to Global Collaborative Engineering Design.
The students had been given the assignment of designing a two-seater car of the future, working as part of a team with fellow mechanical engineering students at universities around the world. The car was to be designed for the world’s megacities of 2030: It will be driven within city limits with a top speed of 25 mph, carry two adults with briefcases and shopping bags, and must be easy to park.
McCausland is phoning in to evaluate and judge the student work. Sreyoshi Bhaduri, a first-year Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, begins the presentations. She is with Team Adam Opel, which has designed a futuristic car for the German market. She begins by giving an overview of her group’s design for the “Opel Reise” (pronounced RISE-EH), a car “for all those journeys that give life meaning.”
It is 8 a.m. in Blacksburg. Bhaduri speaks to a wall-sized video screen that is split into five scenes: the Blacksburg classroom and classrooms at Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, Howard University in Washington, D.C., Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, and Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany.
Bhaduri completes her portion of the presentation and passes the ball to her teammate in Darmstadt, where it is now 2:05 p.m.
The Opel Reise (“reise” is German for “travel”) teammate speaks about the market research that underlies the design of the pod-like car: The typical consumer is a mature, independent woman in her late 40s to late 60s. She wants something safe, elegant, sporty, and environmentally friendly. Because the car is designed for people older than these students, it’s easy to get into, and for added comfort, the seat takes the shape of the user.
The Darmstadt student passes the ball to another teammate in Shanghai, where it is now 9:10 p.m. This student speaks about the car’s structural design: the steel characteristics and the automatic navigation and steering system that it will employ.
The final student, presenting from Mexico, thanks all the professors and notes that the group learned more than just how to design a car as part of a team. They learned insight into other cultures, their work ethos and mindsets, the student says. “Distance is never a barrier when the destination is well-defined,” he concludes.
Jan Helge Bøhn, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and the Tech professor who teaches this class, wraps up the first group presentation. “Let’s give a few minutes to go around the world for questions,” he says casually.
Three other teams give their presentations, highlighting the innovations they have incorporated. Team Chevrolet has designed a car for the Mexican market, where the target consumer is between 20 to 30 years of age and wants more entertainment worked into the vehicle. The team has incorporated a display on the steering wheel and a solar recharging panel on the roof. Team Buick presents a car that features mood lighting and a gullwing door (one that opens from the top), targeting the future U.S. city market. Team Daewoo PATAC presents a car that resembles a Hershey’s kiss, targeting consumers in future Chinese cities who want a compact, stylish-looking vehicle. It features a bio-lighting system where chemical reagents provide bioluminescence. They have also used aluminum foam, which decreases the weight of the car while increasing its ability to absorb energy in case of crashes.
The four teams finish presenting. The virtually-assembled students take a break. Then the judges, also calling in from various global GPS points, confer off-camera to select the winning team.
A few minutes later, there are sounds from the microphone; the judges from around the world have returned. Team Chevrolet, with its car for the Mexican market with a steering wheel entertainment system and solar recharge panels, has won!
What did the students learn from the endeavor? Bhaduri, reflecting on her experience in the class, says she learned to write effective emails, to prioritize, and that trust is an important component in a successful international effort. “We were working with five universities, across four countries and four time zones. The challenge was sometimes Skype didn’t work. You had to live up to your commitments. Trust is a key component,” she says.
Todd Emo, a junior undergrad majoring in mechanical engineering and the international coordinator for Team Buick, says time management and keeping everyone on the same page were challenging. “At the beginning, we weren’t communicating much and we had to overcome that,” he says. “I took the initiative to stay up late and contact each of the members.” Emo hopes to work in the automotive industry, helping revive the U.S. industry by designing more electric vehicles.
A third student, Sarankumar Venkatapathi, a master’s student in mechanical engineering, describes the class as a joyride. Venkatapathi, who is from India, notes that mechanical engineering is not a popular thing to study back home, so he plans to go back to India and help make the discipline more popular by becoming a teacher.
For Bøhn, who has taught this class for the last eight years, everyone who participated has won. “Our students get to explore how to work effectively with colleagues around the world who view and approach problems differently from how they do, and they get to experience how critical it is to build trust by delivering quality as promised and on time,” he says. “If they can do this well, I am certain they will succeed in the increasingly global engineering marketplace.”