Corrales and 25 of her Fundamentals of Flight classmates spent two weeks in Puerto Rico last spring, engaged in a project typically reserved for students much farther along in their academic careers. Working with their peers from Universidad del Turabo, the Rensselaer students most of whom were freshmen designed, built, and tested scaled airplanes.
Luciano Castillo, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, developed the faculty-led study-abroad option for Fundamentals of Flight students to provide them with opportunities not possible in a traditional classroom. Offered for the first time in spring 2010, the option reflects Rensselaer’s commitment to foster multicultural perspectives, in part by incorporating overseas experiences in undergraduate education. Students were accompanied by Castillo and Victor Maldonado, a Rensselaer doctoral student and teaching assistant, during the two-week study abroad experience in Puerto Rico.
“We took students early in their academic careers and gave them an opportunity to get engaged and truly understand what it means to be an engineer,” Castillo said. “We integrated analysis, design, prototype, teamwork, and multicultural experiences in a single course.”
Studies show that project-based coursework helps retain engineering students. Equally important, Castillo said, is that multicultural experiences help prepare prospective engineers to collaborate across borders.
While in Puerto Rico, students attended lectures on aircraft design and construction, as well as seminars featuring international speakers from the aerospace industry and from academia. But most of their time was spent working in teams, designing and building model airplanes that met specific objectives such as high lift, short takeoff, endurance, and aerobatics. Each team included at least one engineering student from Universidad del Turabo.
Planes were test-flown at a flying field, by experienced model airplane pilots. Students then evaluated their plane’s flight performance and presented their findings to their classmates.
“You don’t get it right the first time,” student Alan Carey said. “You have to keep refining it and tweaking it.” His team set altitude as its goal and tested two sets of wings. With the second set, the team’s airplane flew significantly higher than most of the other aircraft.
Andrew Chung’s team achieved the distinction of having the only plane to land successfully. “I think my heart skipped a beat,” Chung said. “Without this trip, I never would have had that experience and the pride of building something that actually works.”
On evenings and weekends, students were immersed in Puerto Rican culture. They visited El Yunque rain forest, Rio Camuy Cave Park, and the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single-dish telescope. Students also toured historic sites in Old San Juan, spent time on Puerto Rico’s beaches, and sampled the island’s music and food at jazz and cuisine festivals.
“I loved every second of it, even on the days when we would be there from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. working on our airplane. It definitely confirmed that I’m pursuing the right degree,” said Corrales, who is majoring in both mechanical and aeronautical engineering.
For Maldonado, one of the most gratifying experiences was watching students learn to work in teams, with colleagues from another culture. “People from different cultures define problems differently and come up with different solutions,” he said. “The students had to come to an understanding and work together, effectively. That will serve them well as engineers in the 21st century.”
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