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May 13, 2004

Global project takes Purdue, German students for 'ride' of their lives

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Engineering students from Purdue and a German university have teamed up to design and build a portable amusement park ride as part of a program that provides experience working abroad in multicultural teams.

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The mechanical engineering students created their "personal carousel" while participating in Purdue's Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education program, or GEARE, which integrates studying and working abroad. Six Purdue students and nine students from the Universität Karlsruhe in Germany teamed up for a yearlong design project that culminated at the end of the spring semester when they demonstrated their prototype at Purdue.

"In today's global economy, we have an obligation to prepare our students for the global workplace, to give them a competitive advantage by providing them with the experience of working with engineers from other countries," said E. Daniel Hirleman, the William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering.

The ride can fit up to four people and is powered by electric motors. It consists of a 12-foot-long steel-beam assembly that has two seats at each end. Each pair of seats is mounted on a single platform, and the two platforms spin as the entire assembly revolves while tilting up and down, seesaw-like, every 11 seconds. The design stemmed from an idea to create portable rides that people could rent for special occasions such as birthday parties, said Eckhard Groll, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue who advised the students.

"They worked very well together, managing to overcome cultural differences to design and build a complicated machine that performed extremely well the first time it was assembled," said Groll, a German national who was "president" of the virtual company formed by the students.

The entire process took more than two years, with students taking German-language classes during their sophomore year at Purdue. Team members put in a combined 2,900 hours to design and build the ride for $21,600, said Purdue student David Bowes, 22, who is from Milwaukee.

Purdue plans to expand the GEARE program to five universities in India, China and possibly South America, Groll said.

Two of the program's key financial supporters are Thomas J. Malott, a Purdue mechanical engineering alumnus, and his wife, Sandra, who provided a $500,000 endowment to help support the program.

Malott, a retired president and CEO of Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., was born in Attica, Ind., and grew up in South Bend, Ind. He said a Midwestern upbringing does not fully prepare students for today's global business environment.

"Our kids are at a disadvantage because they often don't learn the languages and aren't exposed to the cultures of people they ultimately could be working with on complex projects," Malott said. "I learned this the hard way. I think I was 32 years old before I even crossed the ocean."

Hirleman said the program also depends on vital funding from corporations, including Siemens, Cummins Inc., John Deere and General Motors Corp.

"In return, the companies are able to get to know, via internships, some of the very top engineering students from Purdue," Hirleman said.

The team couldn't have built the prototype without more than $13,000 worth of components donated by corporations, including Siemens, which provided expensive electronic controllers and motors, said Bowes, who will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and begin his engineering career at Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis.

Students worked on the amusement park ride at Purdue's Ray W. Herrick Laboratories, where machining and assembly was completed.

The American students in the GEARE program spent nearly eight months studying and working in Germany, completing internships at Siemens, John Deere and Cummins/Behr, which have worldwide operations.

Kevin Hess, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., said the program and internship at Siemens were critical to his successful job search.

"It really stood out on my resume and opened doors with a lot of companies," said Hess, who will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and begin working in June for Siemens in West Chicago, Ill.

Working with their German counterparts taught the students valuable lessons they would not have learned in the classroom, said Katie Boor, 22, who will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

"I know I learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of accomplishing," Boor said.

She said the Purdue students quickly noticed key differences between German and American engineering and corporate practices.

"The American perspective on engineering is that you design it as much as practically possible, but eventually you just have to build it and see what happens and test it until it works," said Boor, who is from Springfield, Ill. "In Germany they will design and design and design until they know it's absolutely perfect.

"So it will take three times as long, but it will be perfect once it's done. It's just an entirely different approach that we all noticed almost right off the bat."

Another obvious difference was the way the Germans structure meetings, Boor said.

"We are used to American meetings, where you have an agenda and everybody knows what they are going to talk about," she said. "In Germany, you know generally what you are going to talk about and everybody puts in their two cents, but it's not as structured.

"As a result, the meetings tend to be longer. I think I had a meeting the first week that was like three hours long."

GEARE teams will present prototypes every year.

Purdue students said they benefited from the experience, as did German student Felix Fritzen, who spoke during the recent presentation.

"It was a great experience for all of us," Fritzen told a group of about 40 people, including representatives from Siemens, General Motors, Cummins and Cummins India.

Immediate impressions aside, though, Purdue educators will be interested to learn how well their students perform in the global work force.

"The real test will be five years from now, when we come and find you, wherever you are, and ask you how this program impacted your careers," Hirleman told the students.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,

Sources: E. Dan Hirleman, (765) 494-5688,

Thomas Malott, (770) 751-7240,

Eckhard Groll, (765) 496-2201,

Kevin Hess, cell (765) 491-6619

Katie Boor, cell (217) 652-7982

David Bowes, cell (765) 543-9949

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Students from Purdue University and the Universität Karlsruhe in Germany demonstrate the portable amusement-park ride they designed and built as part of a program to give American students firsthand experience working abroad with multicultural teams. The ride is being tested with two 70-pound sandbags in place of people because a state safety certification is needed for human passengers. Purdue officials said the ride could easily pass a state inspection if students made minor modifications, but the project is completed and there are no immediate plans to commercialize the ride. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

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