International Experience in Brisbane, Australia 2013

Students learned about alternative energy, aquatic engineering, wastewater treatment, coal and mining engineering while visiting The University of Queensland in Brisbane. Students also visited Keppel Island and had a boat excursion in Brisbane.

‘Seeing it in practice’: Engineering students learned around the world in summer experiences

By Beth Miller

At Washington University in St. Louis, students in the School of Engineering & Applied Science learn more than how to be an engineer. With opportunities to go abroad to get hands-on experience beyond what they learn in the classroom, they also learn to be leaders in a global society.

Sixteen WashU students went to Brisbane, Australia, for the International Experience program, sponsored by the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering and the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP).

The International Experience visits a different country each summer, in collaboration with MAGEEP partner universities, providing students with opportunities to learn how other countries handle energy and environmental challenges. The international trip is part of course EECE 401, International Experience in Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, which includes pre-program seminars in the spring, the summer trip, and a fall course to complete follow-up projects and presentations.

The trip included lectures at the University of Queensland (UQ) in aquatic engineering, solar and geothermal energy, wastewater treatment, carbon dioxide sequestration, biofuel development, electricity market and the economic and social impact of energy and environmental development.

In addition, the group visited the UQ’s solar array; a biofuel generation lab, including algae ponds; several labs; the Rio Tinto Boyne Smelter; and a coal mine, in addition to some recreational trips. The students also prepared a presentation on what they learned.

Pratim Biswas, department chair and the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor, who accompanied the students on the second half of the trip, said it was a great opportunity to see things in full scale.

“Here, the students are in a classroom learning all the theory, but they got to see it in practice,” he said. “They could see the entire supply chain in the energy domain, from the mines where the coal comes from, how it is transported, how it’s shipped internationally, then in use at the power plant. They also got to see some new technology-based power generation that we don’t have here in the United States.”

Hanna Newstadt, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, said she was interested in learning about chemical engineering from a different perspective.

“One of the big things I came away with was the different resources available in Australia,” Newstadt said. “They are very dependent on coal, and they have a lot of uranium that they don’t use. It was very interesting to see the energy profile compared to that in the United States.”

Jessica Rudnick, a junior majoring in environmental earth sciences, in Arts & Sciences, said she was impressed by some of the technologies she saw in use.

“I really liked the algae ponds at the UQ research facility,” she said. “They plan to couple the open algae reactor with an agriculture system, and that’s something I never thought of.”

Rudnick said the visit to the open strip coal mine left a lasting impression.

“I’d never seen anything like that before – it ripped open my heart,” Rudnick said. “It was an amazing sight – it gave you a sense of the scale and the size of energy production. It was terrible, but really amazing as to how powerful humans can be to create these canyons and mountains.”

Newstadt, who this summer worked in the lab of Jay Turner, PhD, associate professor and director of undergraduate programs, through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, said the trip was a great experience.

“It’s very different from learning in the classroom,” she said. “I feel like I have more direction in what I want to do after college.”

The course and the trip are led by Ruth Chen, PhD, professor of practice, director of the International Experience Program and of the master of engineering program in Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering. Chen, who has led five prior International Experience trips, says this year’s trip had high-quality classroom instruction coupled with site visits related to the lectures.

“We try to learn from the strength of each school and each country and take home how they solve their energy and environmental challenges,” Chen said. “The students bring home different perspectives that will be useful pointers for working in energy and environmental challenges in the United States. They are going to be very good engineers and world citizens.”

She credited Chris Greig, director of the University of Queensland Energy Initiative, for the successful outcome of the 16-day trip.

“He has tremendous experience and connections, he understands our curriculum, and he was able to stretch the students in a direction that’s comfortable for them,” Chen said.

Grieg works closely with Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, on an international network of universities collaborating to develop innovative ways to cleanly burn coal for energy. Axelbaum also accompanied the students on the first part of the trip.

Grieg said he was so impressed by the group that he is considering developing a similar program for the University of Queensland.

“I think the students gained a new perspective on global energy markets and environmental challenges through both their lectures at UQ and the industry site visits,” Grieg said. “They would have been particularly struck by the level of investment in energy commodity export capacity, which is very different scenario to the USA.

“I found the Wash. U. students to be very enthusiastic, engaging and eager to learn both in relation to the energy and environment content but also in relation to the cultural and geographic characteristics of Australia,” Grieg said. “I was particularly struck by their politeness and genuine appreciation of everything UQ arranged for them.”

On some of the longer bus rides between locations, Biswas and Chen gave interactive lectures to the students on topics such as career options and choices. Also, after each visit to a facility and on the ferry to classes, the students and professors discussed what they saw.

Seven students stayed in Brisbane until mid-August in internships, working on supplying solar energy to the outback, water treatment, biofuel, seam gas extraction, environmental remediation and nanotechnology.