Human-centered Engineering and Global Cooperation

A course connects Haining, China, with Urbana, Illinois, as first-year students share group projects and the Grainger Engineering curriculum.

Fall 2022

The ZJU-UIUC Institute knows how to move quickly.

A partnership between The Grainger College of Engineering and China’s Zhejiang University, it is based on ZJU’s international campus in Haining. After the campus was approved in 2013, an entirely new campus was built, an international partnership developed, a bachelor’s program approved, a class recruited, a faculty assembled, and a school year started. All in the space of three years.

Among that first class that started in 2016, a group studying electrical engineering and computer engineering was part of a special program in which students earn dual engineering degrees from ZJU and the University of Illinois. It is closely modeled on Grainger Engineering’s curriculum and taught by faculty from both institutions. Students also spend at least one semester at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In the six years since its launch, the ZJU-UIUC Institute has graduated more than 200 students and expanded to include additional programs in mechanical engineering and in civil engineering. 

A course that has students in Haining collaborate with students in Urbana-Champaign on eight-week-long group projects has been moving quickly as well. The combined course ensures that all the ZJU-UIUC Institute students have an international experience in spite of any restrictions that might arise due to the pandemic. It also exposes a group of Urbana-based students to international learning – expanding their horizons and encouraging them to take part in an exchange program with ZJU in the future.

First piloted only two years ago, the course has been such a success that all ZJU-UIUC Institute first-year students now take part in this collaborative online international learning version of the course. About 200 students in China and 200 students in Illinois participate each fall.

“That scale is pretty significant,” said Meredith Blumthal, director of international programs at The Grainger College of Engineering. “I tell colleagues around the country what we did, and they say ‘What?!?’ It certainly wasn’t easy, but we are really happy with the outcome.”

Fantastic, but Very Complex

The course is called Engineering 100, and it’s been a part of the Grainger Engineering curriculum for years. Led by junior and senior engineering learning assistants (ELAs) in engineering, it introduces students to fields of study and career opportunities. 

“We cover the basics of the major. What experiences they will have, what they might be doing, cutting-edge research in the field,” said Professor Huan Hu, who earned his PhD from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at The Grainger College of Engineering and spent nearly three years as a postdoc at IBM Research before joining the ZJU-UIUC Institute.

Engineering 100 also fosters a support network among students and faculty, helps students adjust to college, and includes a project-based learning element.

In the ZJU-UIUC version of the course, teams of six – three in Urbana and three in Haining – work on projects related to “human-centered engineering and global cooperation.” 

The course content that orients students to human-centered engineering was developed by Gretchen Forman, who is responsible for the  Grainger Engineering First-Year Experience. It is designed to enhance the learning experiences of incoming students. Forman also handles much of the coordination of the course at Grainger Engineering. “We said ‘go big or go home’ with the ZJU-UIUC sections of Engineering 100, and Gretchen is key to this project’s success,” Blumthal said.

Student teams meet both synchronously and asynchronously, but that setup has its share of logistical hurdles. 

“It’s a fantastic experience but also a very complex experience. That’s the reality. To manage a class located at two places with a 13- or 14-hour time difference – if you don’t have to do this, you can’t imagine it,” said Professor Cristoforo Demartino, who teaches civil engineering at the ZJU-UIUC Institute. Demartino and the 20 other faculty members at the ZJU-UIUC Institute spend at least one semester at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as part of Grainger Engineering’s Collins Scholar program. It prepares new faculty in areas like instructional design, research-based teaching strategies and innovative assessment techniques.

“This is not putting a video lecture on YouTube or teaching online. This is very interactive. This is discussion among young students from several cultures who have never met. This is applying a traditional UIUC course in an international classroom in an interactive way at scale. For many trained people from academia and industry, these interactions are quite normal, but for undergraduates it can be quite challenging,” Demartino said. 

Faculty members, grad students and ELAs all work closely with the Engineering 100 students throughout the class – assisting them as they generate ideas, complete assignments as a team and bridge the physical and cultural distances.

Feel the World

Course projects for the ZJU-UIUC Institute students and their counterparts in Urbana focus on one of three topics: online communication, learning management systems or life at college. The topics are particularly well-suited to the class because they represent things students experience almost immediately upon arriving on campus, regardless of which campus they are on. 

The most recent Engineering 100 class developed solutions for reducing food waste in the cafeterias, better parking for bicycles and new ways of customizing their online avatars in their learning apps. 

“These topics are great because students jumped out of just engineering thinking and to human-centered thinking immediately,” Hu said.

The interaction among the students itself is also very valuable. 

“This is the first time our Chinese students have been face-to-face with American students since they joined our institute. Through this joint project experience, they accumulated valuable international collaboration spirit and experienced the culture difference and common ground,” Hu said.

The same goes for American students in Urbana, according to Demartino. “Students get the chance to feel the world. When you’re living in a place and not experiencing other places, you have no idea what’s going on. That’s the key part of this class: To expose the students to the world with all its problems, differences and opportunities.”