From Illinois to Comillas and beyond
Every year, engineering students from around the world travel to Illinois, to the campus amidst corn and soybean fields, for the instruction of our faculty and the collaborations with our students. Illinois students, likewise, go abroad and learn to fit their engineering education into a global framework—developing a cross-cultural savvy that is essential in the technology industry. The routes between Illinois and other universities operate both ways.
“The world is flat, as they say,” said ECE Professor Erhan Kudeki, the associate head for undergraduate affairs and chief departmental adviser. “The market for electrical engineering is global, and there is much to be learned, much to be gained. I think that this is true from either direction. As much as [international students] are wanting to come and see what we are doing, we also want to go and see what they are doing.”
According to Kudeki, about 100 international students typically come to ECE ILLINOIS each academic year, sometimes for both semesters. One such exchange program is with the Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, and this past semester, four of their students participated in Senior Design, ECE 445, where two earned end-of-the-semester awards.
“They were, all four, outstanding students and provided a model other students should emulate,” said Professor Paul Scott Carney, the course director for Senior Design.
One of those students, Alvaro Perez, undertook an independent project, designing LED markers for rock climbing gyms. While the climbing walls in most gyms appear to be studded with handholds, only a subset is used for each climb—a specific route, most often marked with colored tape. To change the route, the tape must be removed and reapplied.
Perez, however, used a 3-D printer to fabricate clear handholds and embedded LED markers and other sensors into each. Not only will the LEDs mark the correct path, but the sensors can be used to automatically program new routes as a trail setter is climbing.
“It is a beautiful, elegant solution for the climbing gym,” Carney said, who recognized Perez’s design with the Most Marketable Award.
The Comillas students chose Illinois from many study-abroad options in the United States, they said, because they heard that Illinois was the best. At Illinois, they found greater access to labs, and more support academically because courses here, unlike at their home university, involve teaching assistants. Lab equipment also seemed more up to date.
“The group from Spain has been a very serious sort and they are expecting to do some substantial projects,” Kudeki said. Other students from that university have done senior theses and participated in undergraduate research. Kudeki was pleased, after directing this cohort to Senior Design, to know that the students not only succeeded in the class, but excelled.
“I got this wonderful feedback,” he said.
Another design student, Gonzalo Bandeira, won the Power Area Award for a multi-output power supply system that could be used at workstations in the Senior Design lab. Commercially available units cost upwards of $200 and often have more features than are needed in the lab. Bandeira tailored the capabilities to the needs of the class and, accordingly, built a more inexpensive system.
“The work was professionally done to the extent that the unit can now be used in the lab by other students, and I expect it will last for years,” Carney said. “The documentation and testing were exquisite and look like the work of a specialized company.”
Teresa Finis, the director of International Programs in Engineering (IPENG) at Illinois, reports that Comillas has likewise been a good destination for our students. “We've been able to increase the number of students coming here because of the continued areas that they've developed for [our students]. The goal is to stay in balance in our exchanges,” she said. “They’ve developed research options for our students, and we send a lot of students for that.”
Justin Brooks, a senior in electrical engineering, studied abroad at Comillas last fall, where he took courses ranging from thermodynamics to digital systems. Although most of his courses were taught in Spanish, allowing him to become immersed in the language, Comillas actually offers a large number of engineering courses in English.
“It was more difficult than Google Translate: what does this word mean?” he said of the Spanish-language coursework. “I had to dig in and say, ‘Oh, you know in thermodynamics they have this concept and this seems to be this.’ On the other side of the coin, about half of the technical words I ran into were essentially an English word with an “o” slapped at the end, very simple. So that was nice.”
While Brooks was there, he capitalized on the travelling opportunities, taking weekend sightseeing trips, mostly via train, and going as far as Portugal and Italy. That suitcase-ready desire was the impetus for studying abroad in the first place. “I wanted to travel,” he said. “It seemed like an exciting way to keep studying, but then also get to see the world.”
For Illinois students wishing to study abroad in the spring semester, applications must be submitted by September 15. In addition to the Comillas exchange, there more than 25 other semester-long programs coordinated by the International Programs in Engineering, with locations ranging from Chile to Hong Kong.
Additional application information and a complete list of locations can be found on the International Programs in Engineering website.