Companies get quite a bargain when they sponsor an international team of engineering students from Virginia Tech and Ecole des Mines de Nantes (EMN) to solve a technical problem. One team was "empowered" by a sponsoring company to invest $100,000 in heavy equipment to improve the production process, yielding an impressive three-year break-even point.

Not only are companies helping students gain real-world work experience; they also get practical recommendations from the future engineers that can be implemented immediately and result in significant cost savings conservatively in the tens of thousands of dollars.

What began eight years ago mostly as an English language experience for the French students and a cultural experience for the Americans has grown into a technical exchange program that produces cost-saving, timesaving and space-saving results for real industry problems. The program provides Virginia Tech engineering students with the opportunity to collaborate internationally, a skill they need in order to excel in today's global workplace.

"It is a realistic technical international exchange that results in higher quality work and a deeper understanding of how to work technically with people from other cultures," said Brian Kleiner, associate professor in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech and director of the capstone design courses in industrial and systems engineering and the French exchange program.

"The Collaborative Exchange Program with Virginia Tech is one of the most important exercises for the industrial engineering students at EMN. It allows for the crossing of different working and social cultures to solve real industrial problems. With this program, we show clearly our commitment to the education of engineers in an international context," said Phillipe Castagliola, department academic coordinator for EMN.

"What is particularly interesting is the manner in which the French and Americans approach and perform the same technical project," said Kleiner. Each year the students have a similar reaction while working together on the real-life engineering projects--detecting both subtle and obvious technical and cross-cultural differences. American students find that French students have particularly strong analytical and simulation skills. The French students express appreciation for the American students being open minded and respectful about ideas shared and having an organized approach to problem solving. American students are also admired for their project management skills.

Companies sponsoring student teams include: Volvo Logistics, Volvo Trucks, Bristol Compressors, DBT, Danaher, Pemco, Riverbend Nursery, Target, Phillip Morris, RR Donnelley and United Parcel Service.

The types of problems companies provided the students to solve include: redefine an emballage scrap disposal/recycling system; analyze sleep cab integration; design a motor protector assembly; roll assembly improvement; work flow/load; optimizing commercial nursery/greenhouse traffic flow; improving a factory housekeeping system; a manufacturing center strategic plans initiative; press process monitoring and facility process improvement.

Sixty-seven students formed 11 teams equally comprised of American and French students. This highly technical program includes joint videoconferences during the semester giving students the opportunity to communicate with their team members in both countries. Teams present progress reports and conduct planning sessions during the international videoconferences and through other media.

The French advisors for the program include: Bruno Castanier, Stéphane Dauzere-Peres, and Phillippe Castagliola. The American advisors include: Joe Meredith, Frank Chen, Kevin Creehan, Mike Deisenroth, Bob Taylor, Tonya Smith-Jackson, Maury Nussbaum, Subhash Sarin, and Ken Harmon. Building upon the partnership between EMN and Virginia Tech, a dual degree graduate program was initiated and continues to grow.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,600 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.

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