In 2005, two engineering professors developed a unique collaboration between the University of Michigan and the Technical University of Berlin (TUB). Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, it is U-M’s single largest undergraduate education abroad program, impacting the lives of hundreds of Michigan and German engineers.
It’s a six-week cultural and educational experience unlike most study abroad programs. Students participate in real-world, project-based learning as opposed to a lecture-oriented curriculum. They also live in city apartments instead of dormitories. It’s an incredibly immersive experience, which is simultaneously one of the biggest challenges and rewards for many of the students.
“The first time I was on an airplane was my flight to Berlin,” says mechanical engineering junior Sam Dion, who participated in the program last summer. “I faced many challenges throughout the process, but I took everything as a learning experience.”
“Traveling abroad is a really great way to figure out what your weaknesses are,” explains electrical engineering sophomore Bridget Koessler. “On the first night, we tried to go to the grocery store so that we could make something German. It was a disaster. They didn’t take credit cards and we didn’t understand that’s what the cashier was trying to tell us.” They managed to find some frozen pizza, which they ate in defeat. Next time they brought cash to the store.
“You spend a lot of time together, and I made many friends that I’ve kept close relationships with,” says Dion. “We would cook community meals to try German recipes and play soccer together with the locals.”
The immersive nature of the program isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. “It started out as a collaboration from faculty and their interest in creating something new and different,” says Miranda Roberts, Director of International Programs in Engineering at U-M. “It is not a traditional study abroad experience. Students are out doing projects and doing research—putting their classroom knowledge into practice.”
This summer’s cohort can choose to work on projects related to alternative energy biofuel, engine optimization, and robot programming to name a few.
“It definitely opened my world-view and strengthened my passion for a certain kind of engineering,” says mechanical engineering sophomore Madeline Gilleran. “The German culture and approach to infrastructure is just really cool. It has made me want to combine my passion for mechanical engineering with architecture, urban planning and transportation.”
“This program blends academic credit with practical engineering experience,” says Amy Conger, Assistant Vice Provost for Global and Engaged Education. “I think this combination is attractive to students because they can make progress towards their CoE degrees, engage in laboratory-based projects and gain exposure to graduate-level research.”
“It helped me figure out what I actually wanted to study” explains Koessler. “I was between computer science and electrical before the program. My project in Berlin was Microprocessor Programming, where we made a digital instrument tuner, working with both the hardware and software of the device. It gave me a lot of exposure to electrical hardware that I never had before, which helped me progress in that direction.”
When U-M Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mechanical Engineering Volker Sick, and TUB’s Professor for Energy Process Engineering and Conversion Technologies for Renewable Energies Frank Behrendt, received DAAD funding to establish the program, they couldn’t imagine the impact. “The phenomenal growth that we’ve seen shows that they really like it,” says Sick. “It’s enormously gratifying.”
Professor Sick’s pride in the growth of the program is matched by his belief in the importance of a global purview. “The economy has shown time and again that it’s not isolated,” says Sick. “You will collaborate and interface with people in different cities, countries and continents. And these days, that couldn’t be more true. Students need to be prepared for this, even if they never work outside of Ann Arbor. We are enabling these students to have a happy and productive life.”
“Nationwide, engineering students have been underrepresented among US students who study abroad,” explains Conger. “Programs like TUB have helped us close this gap.” Interestingly, another engineering collaboration is the second largest study abroad program at U-M: The UM-SJTU (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) Joint Institute summer program.