Campus & Community

Engineering Sustainable Opportunities Through Study Abroad

Stevens students explore green energy and Spanish culture through the Sustainable Energy summer intensive with Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid

Students Ellen Xiaobing Drennan, Joshua Hinton, Madison McCool in Madrid
Students Ellen Xiaobing Drennan, Joshua Hinton, Madison McCool in Madrid

Squeezing in as much education and experience into a college career before graduation is a challenge for even the most ambitious and energetic of undergraduates.

When faced with a choice of summer session opportunities, for example, do you choose to earn graduate-level credit in a new subject, undertake a research project, make potential career network connections, or take time to travel abroad?

This past summer, fifth-year Stevens Institute of Technology Cooperative Education Program undergraduates Ellen Xiaobing Drennan and Joshua Hinton accomplished all four simultaneously, thanks to the accelerated Sustainable Energy study abroad program in Madrid, Spain.

"I really wanted to study abroad during college," says Drennan, a Pinnacle Scholar whose mechanical engineering concentration is in sustainable energy. "The two-week courses that Stevens offers for study abroad are incredibly useful because I was able to fit them in and also still have a full summer internship."

Chemical engineering major Hinton concurs, adding that the combination of travel and coursework makes it "really easy to kill two birds with one stone."

Offered in collaboration with exchange partner Comillas Pontifical University, the 500-level course combines lectures, guest speakers, labwork, research, and field trips, providing students an immersive introduction to sustainable energy technologies at an accelerated pace.

Professor and chemical engineering and materials science department chair Ronald Besser has been leading the course for more than a decade — also making him the perfect tour guide for a sightseeing tour of Madrid's many historical sites.

"We walked, like, 14 miles that day seeing different things," says Hinton.

Speed and new cultural opportunities, however, are not only what distinguishes the program from its full-semester counterpart on the Hoboken campus. With more than 40 percent of Spain's electricity coming from renewable energy, the summer program offers students more immediate access to more extensive green resources, knowledge, and infrastructure.

"New Jersey's sustainable energy is mainly nuclear power," explains Drennan, "which is important, but also it has limitations in how many experts are in the area, how many sites you can visit, especially given the constraints of a course during the regular semester."

One such visit included a trip to a nearby renewable energy company that employs wind, solar, and hydropower technologies. According to Hinton, the visit allowed students to witness firsthand the management, considerations, and best practices of sustainable energy production.

“Students are immersed in sustainable energy concepts and technology, and they’re immersed in a culture and place outside of their own,” says Besser. “It turns out that Spain is a fantastic location on delivering both these aspects. Spain is a leader in sustainable energy technology and implementation, especially wind and solar power. Also, Madrid is a fantastic European capital city that’s got world class museums and tremendous nightlife, restaurants, cultural activities—it turns out to be a fantastic place to get both sides of your brain going.”

With only six students in the course, classmates formed quick friendships, spending most of their time together both inside and outside the classroom. Drennan feels the course size and format combined well to create a rich, bespoke learning experience.

"This course flowed in a way that was much more holistic, going into depth about topics that the students were interested in," she says. "I really appreciated [Besser's] receptiveness and willingness to have conversations about these topics."

Having taken Sustainable Energy as the first course in a green engineering minor, Hinton says the expedited format also facilitated easier continuity between those conversations and kept the topic fresh in his mind.

As part of the course, Drennan and Hinton partnered to develop a final term project exploring a realistic application scenario (including life cycle and break-even analyses) for implementing a combined heat and power internal combustion engine generator to harness and convert environmental and waste heat into usable heat and electricity. They chose Dubai International Airport as their implementation location for its vast size, its high energy need, and its access to other resources — including oil.

"Because you were going to need to run [the generator] somehow," Hinton explains. "While, yeah, there's still going to be oil costs in it, it's going to be mostly green because it's hot there, so you're using condenser, steam, and liquid to power it to run the turbine."

This perhaps unexpected consideration speaks to the course's grounding in not only practical application but also real-world implications.

"It wasn't just a technical course," says Drennan. "It was also a course of understanding the ethics, understanding the principles, and the decision-making behind sustainable energy topics." 

For any group project, scheduling can be a challenge. But it's made even more so with such limited time available and the lure of new experiences in a foreign country ever waiting outside the window.

"Luckily, since we were in that environment of being so close as a class, we were able to make it work" says Drennan. "But time management is really important because you don't want to just be stuck inside doing homework all day when you could be out there exploring Madrid. You want to be able to do both."

Drennan cites the National Archeological Museum as a personal favorite highlight of her time spent in Madrid. "Europe has a very old history that I haven't been able to see personally before now, so it was really eye-opening,” she says.

But how much of a country can you really see in such a short space of time? Quite a bit, it turns out. By maximizing his schedule and adding in a side trip to Ibiza and a couple of extra travel days to his itinerary, Hinton estimates he saw "60% of Spain."

Perhaps even more than the tourist destinations, however, an aspect from the trip that made a deep impression on Hinton was the immersion into the day-to-day existence of Madrid: of living, eating, and even commuting across town as and amongst the locals.

So much so, in fact, Hinton is considering a career overseas after graduation —perhaps even at a facility the class visited together.

"The Madrid trip definitely opened my eyes to an industry that I didn't think I could get to right away," Hinton says. "If I could work back in Madrid for a company that I saw while taking a class in Madrid, that'd be ideal."

While Hinton credits the course with making him more environmentally aware in subsequent classes, Drennan credits it with reinforcing her already strong interest in "how to engineer with a lens for the sustainable and to design for the environment."

With plans to continue on with beauty company Shiseido full-time after graduation (where she has been employed as an intern for more than a year), Drennan says she wants to encourage any company she works for to implement sustainable, socially responsible business practices, whether in energy production or other areas such as supply chain and manufacturing vendor selection.

"That's why I wanted to take this course," she says. "I think that is really valuable for people who are engineering for companies like mine, to be more aware of the impact of their choices and their actions."

Both Drennan and Hinton expect to return to school some time in the future to complete a Master's degree, and both hope, thanks in large part to their summer experiences, to return to Spain as well.

The students are unanimous in what they miss most from their time in Spain: the food.

But "more seriously," Drennan says, "I think it's a great way to immerse yourself into culture, to study abroad, and I really loved it." As for the Sustainable Energy summer program specifically, she says, "I learned so much over these two weeks. I had taken other two-week courses, but this one just seemed to be able to stuff so much content in."