College of Engineering News Room

USF engineering undergraduates visit Munich, Berlin in first official college study abroad program


Students take a group picture at Hohenschwangau Castle — one of two 19th-century castles in the new study abroad program’s itinerary.

by Russell Nay

As the first official study abroad trip offered by the College of Engineering, 21 USF engineering students visited Munich and Berlin from March 12 to March 19 2022 as part of a debut study abroad program focused on global approaches to sustainability in engineering, city planning, and architecture.

Destinations included tours of the 19th century Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany’s leading technology and media park Berlin Adlershof, the EUREF-campus renewable energy lab, BMW World, the world’s largest museum of science and technology Deutsches Museum, the Berlin Wall Memorial, and HWR Berlin for a guest lecture by an economic sciences researcher.

Every student on the trip was enrolled in zero-credit companion course Global Engineering as part of the program, which is visible on their transcripts. Students were also enrolled in, or recently completed, EGS 3720 Globalization and Technology, EGN 3615 Engineering Economics with Social and Global Implications, or both. Each course is offered by the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering, and both are co-taught by College of Engineering Assistant Professor of Instruction Joanna Burchfield and Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering Assistant Professor of Instruction Jamie Chilton, who also co-lead the college’s study abroad program.

“For students who haven’t left the United States or even Florida, it’s hard to think about sustainability beyond paper straws,” Burchfield said. “Seeing that there are completely different ways of thinking about engineering helps students develop a much broader, global and ethical perspective on engineering and sustainability as well as their responsibility as global citizens.”

“I’m sure many of them before the trip had a “US is best” mindset but afterward thought that Germany does some things better and that it wouldn’t hurt to incorporate certain aspects into how we do things in the US,” Chilton said. “I think it was a big moment for them to realize that there are other ways of doing things and that it’s ok to take up new ideas."

These ideas concerned not only more sustainable, better performing systems for renewable energy, manufacturing, and transportation but also social systems like healthcare, education, work culture, and public safety. For engineering students, EGS 3720 and EGN 3615 satisfy USF’s Enhanced General Education Program student learning outcome requirements for Human and Cultural Diversity, whereby students demonstrate an understanding of the diversity of human experiences.

Burchfield and Chilton said that, as a culminating experience of both courses, the trip was closely aligned with the learning outcomes of each. They were in close communication with partner representatives at Customized Educational Programs Abroad (CEPA) to leverage the organization’s contacts to better tailor the experiences at each destination visited by the students to the topic of sustainability. Of the approximately 28,000 exhibited objects across 50 STEM fields, Deutsches Museum guides showed students exhibits most relevant to sustainability, even if they weren’t listed on the original tour. CEPA reps organized the HWR Berlin guest lecture, offered collaborations with additional universities and drafted the trip itinerary.

Deutsches Museum terrace

Students stand on the roof terrace of the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

“I was really impressed with the Deutsches Museum tour,” Chilton said. “They had the most phenomenal tour guides that really tied everything together and talked about technology evolving over time and where Germany’s going and threw in some great stories and exhibits. Students even went back after we were done with the tour.”

“The students got so much from the cultural excursions they went on,” Burchfield said. “They’re traveling through the city looking at the infrastructure and thinking of it through terms of city planning and architecture, but these cultural elements gave them a lot of context for the places they were in and added a human element to their engineering mindsets.”

Their personal experiences on the trip added further context. On the train from Munich to Berlin, USF electrical engineering senior Juliann Rice realized she was sitting in the wrong seat, and as she tried to find the right one, the train started moving. Luggage in hand, Rice said she took a wrong step as the train car shifted and fell to the floor, injuring her foot. While Chilton and three other students made sure she was all right, they also made her an appointment with a doctor a block away from the group’s hotel.

Before the end of the day, Rice made it to the doctor’s office, had X-rays taken, and was prescribed crutches and ibuprofen for a sprain, which she was able to pick up from a pharmacy less than a block from the hotel. The total bill was 109 euros, and Rice said that even as a tourist in a new country, her experience at the doctor’s office put her at ease.

“I felt like he cared more about my well-being than the physician I see here,” Rice said. “They were able to get me X-rays down the hall, and I had a friend in the US who was trying to get an MRI that took her three months.”

Industrial engineering alum and former Engineering Student Council member Curtis Gaskins said that this was his first study abroad trip — which he wanted to take because he was a senior at the time — and was his last opportunity to be part of one.

Gaskins said his time in Germany helped him understand how he wants to improve sustainability in his field and how he can make an impact in his day-to-day work. He was able to compare the values and standards he saw from the industrial operations of German energy labs and BMW World with those of a Florida company’s plant that he saw on a separate tour he took before leaving the state. The commitment to more energy efficient protocol Gaskins saw in Germany was a stark contrast to the hesitancy of the US-based company to operate under a more sustainable model. Notably, despite the company investing in the creation of a scaled-down factory model, they never fully switched to it in fear of potentially losing profits.

“Even though they had a model for a smaller plant right next to the current one that was a better, smaller, more efficient plant, they just ran both side by side,” Gaskins said. “That really stuck with me.”

Both Gaskins and Rice were part of a post-program feedback session hosted by Burchfield and Chilton. Students met to discuss how the trip could be improved, what destinations should be kept or swapped, and what they took away from their time in Munich and Berlin.

Neuschwanstein Castle trek

Students trek the road up to Neuschwanstein Castle nestled in a hill above the village of Hohenschwangau.

Students’ arrival in Berlin coincided with the first weeks of the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, and many noticed a significant presence of Ukrainian refugees in the city’s train stations. Gaskins said he saw a dedicated welcome booth organized by one station that offered resources to refugees who were LGBTQ community members. Mechanical engineering senior Madyson Hadesty said that it was lined with pride flags that represented nearly all of the LGBTQ community segments.

“It was meaningful because these were people who were coming from a place that discriminated against them,” Hadesty said.

Many students remarked that they already miss several elements of the infrastructure in Munich and Berlin, like abundant and efficient public transportation across train and bus systems, quality walkability and bike lanes, remarkably clean drinking water, a large residential solar energy system, and quicker travel between neighboring countries.

Computer science and engineering junior Maya Wedgworth said she lives near US-19 north of Tampa and that her experience with public transportation in Germany was eye-opening. US-19 was identified in a 2005 Dateline NBC episode as the deadliest road in the US based on five years of federal crash data.

“People who have to risk their lives crossing six lanes of traffic to get to a bus is insane,” Wedgworth said. “It was such a contrast with roads in Germany.”

Through conversations with German students and faculty members, USF engineering students also learned of major differences in education and healthcare systems in Germany compared to the US. German citizens have access to a baseline level of public secondary education and healthcare plans. They have the option to spend more on better healthcare and education and can choose to take additional tests to get into more prestigious schools.

group shot 3

One trip destination included the wind tunnel at Germany’s leading technology and media park Berlin Adlershof.

These experiences inspired students to think about how they can use their future engineering careers to make an impact back home as well as add some of the companies they visited to their job searches after graduation.

“We were so happy to help facilitate this growth and perspective broadening,” Burchfield said. “Students saw how they could be different kinds of engineers and do work that makes them feel like they’re contributing to their communities. They were making a lot of different connections between the people they talked to, the places they went, and their professions. It was our hope we’d get them somewhere near that, but all of them blew our expectations out of the water with the continuous ‘aha’ moments they were having on the trip.”

Burchfield and Chilton said they’re already using the feedback they received from the program’s first cohort to refine the trip’s itinerary for the next student group, which will also travel to Germany over spring break in a future semester.