Undergrads help export latest in engineering communication to China

Junior mechanical engineering student Kate Ferster works with engineering students in China in 2016. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When classes conclude this spring, two Penn State mechanical engineering students will join the growing ranks of those that have helped export cutting-edge engineering communication from University Park to China.

Kirby Perosa, a junior in mechanical engineering, and Adam Shrager, a second-year graduate student in mechanical engineering, will join Michael Alley, associate professor of engineering communications, on what will be the fourth expedition from University Park to Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) in Shanghai. Also joining Alley will be two senior industrial and manufacturing engineering students, Katherine Waskiw and Mikhala Stevens.

The team will deliver an intensive five-day workshop on the advanced principles of presenting engineering research to about 40 mechanical engineering graduate students, chosen from 200 or so applicants.

Alley, who advises the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Experiences in Engineering (Utree) program sponsored by the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education, recruits Utree members to help him deliver the weeklong course. Utree is a great source for teachers, Alley said, because they are used to presenting and teaching engineering communication concepts already because it is part of what they do in Utree.

In an intensive week of instruction, the Penn State team will deliver short courses on engineering presentation and writing, give hands on critiques of student presentations, oversee a poster contest, and answer lots of questions from their students.

The annual trip grew out of a relationship between Penn State and SJTU and through repeat invitations from SJTU’s executive dean of mechanical engineering, Lifeng Xi.

“The Chinese students benefit from receiving two professional short courses in one week and from interacting with American students and educators, which is something they really want,” Alley said. "Our Penn State students have an international experience and the experience of going on a business trip and presenting to a different audience."

Students should expect to work hard, Alley said. “It is very much a working trip. We are in the classroom most of the day and prepping at night.”

The Penn State students do get to socialize with their hosts, often at meal times, and are treated to a day of sightseeing in Shanghai.

While all of the Chinese students speak some English, the international language of science and business, their abilities vary, Alley said and the Penn State team has to take that into account.

"Our students have to be sensitive to the language barrier. We try to speak clearly, loudly and slowly," he said.

The first time Perosa, a junior mechanical engineering student, went to China, she was there to learn. On her second trip, she will be a teacher.

Perosa went to China with her “Impact of Culture on Engineering in China” class in 2015, which made a lot of stops on a monthlong tour. 

"I've been to China before, but I'm excited to spend time in Shanghai and get to see that up close. On my first trip, we moved pretty fast," she said. "I'm honored and excited to see China again and to meet students from another culture and see what I can learn from them."

While China may not be all new for Perosa, going on a business trip is.

"The business aspect of this is going to be all new for me, from packing business clothes to what to expect while we are working," Perosa said.

Shrager also has traveled to Asia once before, to attend an engineering expo in Seoul, South Korea. While technically not a Utree member — Shrager is a graduate student and Utree is an undergraduate program — he was a member when he was an undergrad and is well-versed in the concepts to be taught.

Shrager said he’s looking forward to the hands-on nature of the instruction he’ll help with in China.

"Doing a workshop is more interactive. It's more like teaching than just presenting,” he said. “You're looking for a give-and-take.”

In addition to the work experience, Shrager said he is anticipating mealtimes.

"My favorite thing about traveling is tasting the cuisine, which is going to happen because everybody has to eat."

Ryan Dill, a junior mechanical engineering student who helped teach the course on the 2016 trip, said one of the things that impressed him about the Chinese students was their English language skills.

"You could see how much they value English in China. The students really impressed me," Dill said. “We worked hard that week, but they worked even harder.”

Dill said another aspect of the trip that surprised him was the effect it had on him.

"On top of teaching the students a new presentation style, the best part of the trip was traveling to a completely different land and gaining and appreciation for a different culture. It made me think a lot about my own culture,” he said. “While we were there to teach, I learned a lot myself."

Junior mechanical engineering student Kate Ferster, was a sophomore when she went on the trip in 2016. She remembers the near-constant thoughtfulness of her hosts in Shanghai.

"They were the best hosts I've ever had. They were so gracious and took really good care of us. I think it’s just part of Chinese culture to be an amazing host," she said. 

Another commonality Ferster noticed among the students was curiosity.

"The Chinese students were so eager to learn. While we were working, they asked lots of questions; on breaks, they asked lots of questions,” she said. “One of the lessons I learned was that once you get past the initial language barrier, you find ways to communicate and you get things done."

Ferster said the trip was 90 percent work, 10 percent free time.

"We did get to spend time outside of class together," Ferster said. "We went out to dinner with our hosts and students. It was good to learn to have a professional experience, but then go out and have a casual, social time with people from a different culture."

She offered the following advice for other Penn State students considering an international experience: "I think you need to be ready to have an open mind and get out of your comfort zone. You can really learn a lot if you are in the right frame of mind."

Dill echoed that sentiment. “I would highly recommend to any other students at Penn State to take a trip abroad," he said. "Experiencing a new culture can really open up your understanding of the world.”

Ryan Dill, a junior mechanical engineering student, teaching in China on the 2016 trip. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated March 31, 2017