Volkswagen Experience Lends International Flavor to Engineers’ Education

November 26, 2013

The numbers tell the story. There are 7.1 billion people in the world, but fewer than 5 percent of them are Americans. If the graduates of the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science are to enjoy successful careers, they must be prepared to lead, work and live in multicultural settings.

That’s the rationale behind Global Ingenuity 21, an intensive two-week program offered each summer in Germany to the Engineering School’s Rodman Scholars.

At the core of the Global Ingenuity 21 program is a design project that U.Va. students undertake alongside counterparts from the Technical University of Brauschweig. The design challenge is posed by the program’s sponsor, Volkswagen Group of America.

“Without doubt, it’s an immersive experience,” said Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Rodman Scholars program. “Students spend 12 to 15 hours each day whiteboarding ideas, conducting research, developing strategies and preparing their final presentation.”

The lessons that students take from the think tank vary from year to year, depending on the nature of the challenge. This year, one of the principal teaching moments for students was the realization that they could change the scope of their work.

Students were originally asked to “design a system to ensure that Volkswagen adheres to the values of corporate social responsibility and fair mobility throughout the entire product lifecycle.” After thoroughly researching the issue, they soon concluded that Volkswagen already does a very good job in this area – but that public perception lagged behind this reality. Rather than proposing new corporate responsibility initiatives, the group focused on ways that the company could expand its existing programs with special emphasis on raising public awareness and engagement.

“Our students are very good at completing assignments,” Elzey said. “It was challenging for them to shift gears and take responsibility for doing what they thought best.”

Students also began to appreciate the way culture shapes problem-solving.

“German and American students approached the idea of corporate social responsibility from different perspectives,” said John Hack, one of the Rodman Scholars in the program. “Working together, we challenged each others’ assumptions and came up with a better solution than we could have achieved individually.”

Volkswagen certainly took the students’ recommendations seriously. Among the executives present at the team’s presentation of their multipart strategy were Dr. Manfred Meier, director of university relations for Volkswagen’s AutoUni; Cord-Dieter Wiesenthal, a representative of VW’s Future Trends group; and Anne-Kathrin Kaider, a member of Professor Gerhard Praetorius’ Corporate Social Responsibility group. Volkswagen Group of America covers all program costs while in Germany, leaving students responsible only for airfare, tuition and the cost of some meals.

The Global Ingenuity students also had the opportunity to explore Germany’s culture, history and architecture. They met, for instance, with Hermann Ott, a member of the German Federal Parliament and speaker for climate policy for the German Green Party. Ott gave the group a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bundestag, the building where the parliament meets, and spoke about the place of sustainability in the German political agenda. Students also spoke with Philip Murphy, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Students also gained firsthand exposure to how a high-quality, high-performing corporation operates. Global Ingenuity students toured Volkswagen’s state-of-the-art production factory in Wolfsburg, a marvel of automation and customization.

“On average, only two of the 3,500 automobiles produced there each day are identical,” Elzey noted.

They also visited the Autostadt, a complex of pavilions featuring many of the Volkswagen brands and which highlights the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Taken together, the Global Ingenuity experience had a definite impact on students. One student, Tanyathorn Arthornsombat, had traveled extensively around the world before joining Global Ingenuity, but she returned home considering attending graduate school in Germany.

“I was lucky to be able to experience real-life engineering in a global context because it gave me the opportunity to realize what kind of future I want to pursue,” she said. “Whatever I do, I would like to follow a career path that would allow me to do something global.”