Eleven College of Engineering students started spring break with a pre-dawn wake-up call. They had to get to the airport to begin a trek that would take them to Lyon, France, by way of flights through Houston, New Jersey and Geneva, Switzerland, and, finally, a picturesque train ride.
The 10-day immersion trip was the first such experience hosted through the college's Global Engineering Initiative. Every detail was carefully planned to maximize the students' exposure to the engineering industry, culture and higher education community of Lyon. A second trip, to Italy with 12 students, took place in May.
The 11 mechanical and industrial engineering students chosen to attend the Lyon trip were among 25 who applied. To earn a spot, each student submitted an essay on his or her career goals and expectations for the experience.
Helping to defray students' travel costs was a portion of Edwin "Burt" and Norma McNeil's gift to the college's Global Engineering Initiative. The idea for the initiative emerged from a growing need to prepare engineering students to excel and compete in a global economy. That need was echoed by the senior engineers on the college's Advisory Council on Engineering Communications.
"They strongly advised that we start giving students a broader perspective on engineering and its application in places other than the U.S.," explains Warren Hull, manager of the Engineering Communications Studio and director of the Global Engineering Initiative.
Burt, an LSU electrical engineering alumnus, traveled as a project manager with ExxonMobil and on vacation with Norma. Those experiences, coupled with Dean Rick Koubek's conversation with him about the new Global Engineering Initiative, sparked his interest.
Burt contends, "We can't just say the way we do things is the way everyone else does things. That would be the wrong approach."
That understanding is a key takeaway that many of the students expressed during a recent dinner with the McNeils.
"Going out of the country really helps to open up your mind ... We can get so close-minded in the way we do things," says Kevin Louth.
Louth and his peers spent two days at Lyon Polytech, where they sat in on solid mechanics and fluid dynamics classes and helped students practice speaking English.
The group's tour of the Rhodia plant, which produces sucrose, provided a firsthand look at French business and production processes. During the tour, they met an engineer who is originally from Germany and the plant manager, who is from France but worked in Baton Rouge for a few years.
"It's an increasingly international world across the board," says trip chaperone and Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair Dimitris Nikitopoulos, PhD.
The students rounded out their trip by exploring the medieval village of Pèrouges, where many buildings exemplify how to successfully address engineering challenges.
In describing the trip to the McNeils, Shane Moore shared, "Honestly, it was the best experience of my life."
Moore, like many of the students who participated, plans to return to Europe.
Louth bought a camera right before the trip and put it to use taking more than 2,000 photos.
"I wanted to remember everything we did," he said.
Far more than just a sightseeing venture, Louth sees the experience as lending credibility to his future efforts to compete for international work experience.
He explains, "I can say, 'I've been to France. I've worked with French engineers before.'"
Gerry Knapp, the only freshman on the trip, feels similarly encouraged about the possibility of interning overseas.
"It definitely seems a lot more possible to do it now," he says of his plans for future travel.
As is the case at most universities, LSU's engineering curricula are packed with courses and accreditation-driven initiatives, leaving little room for expansion. Through the Global Engineering Initiative, all students will have options to achieve varying levels of global competence so they can interact, communicate and work effectively with people and companies worldwide.
Included in the initiative are global case studies; faculty development workshops on integrating global competencies; a course on contemporary issues in global engineering; global immersion and study abroad trips; international internships; and panels composed of industry experts with international experience. These programs will prepare students for the global marketplace.
"They might be here in Baton Rouge, but their projects might be anywhere in the world," Hull says.
For Burt, acknowledging that shift in the industry and investing in the students who will be most impacted by it is an obvious fit for him and Norma.
He says of today's LSU Engineering students, "That's our future."