The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Expanding His Comfort Zone

Fourth year industrial engineering major Alex Barth had a memorable research internship “across the pond” last summer; an experience that goes far beyond his accomplishment of writing a paper that he’ll present at the International Conference of Engineering Design 2011 in Copenhagen, Denmark, next August. He also learned the lesson of a lifetime. “What made the biggest impact on my life?” Alex comments about his time in Europe. “I realized that in order to grow as a person you need to put yourself outside your comfort zone. You need to experience new things. That’s how you learn and how you evolve. That realization will shape my whole life.”

Alex was one of 25 students from the United States, five of whom were engineers, doing summer research internships in France through a Syracuse University program. He and the other engineers did research at the National Institute of Applied Science (INSA) of Strasbourg, a school of engineering and architecture under the supervision of the French Ministry of Higher Education.

One week Alex was frantically studying the French dictionary, and the next, voila! Total immersion! “Before I knew it I was in France on the adventure of a lifetime,” he says. “I went over there with open arms and took every day as it came.”

The subject of Alex’s research was an idea proposed to him by his French mentor at INSA, Professor Emmanuel Caillaud: “I’ve been thinking about something for a while. It’s very French. I’m curious about how to validate a scientific proposal in engineering design. I picture doing this by seeking a correlation between a type of research and type of validation.

This concept, and the twinkle in Professor Caillaud’s eye when he voiced it, spawned Alex’s paper, which he continued to work on long after leaving Strasbourg. His paper conducts a literature review of 71 publications from the past five years in the Journal of Research in Engineering Design. The paper aims to improve the quality of research in engineering design.

“The goal is that we can provide a common methodological support for research in engineering design,” observes Alex. “It’s been a field of research for 50 years or so. There’s a clear need for a common structure, methodological approach, definition of terms, scientific rigor, and data collection.”

Meanwhile, as he worked on his paper, Alex was having the time of his life. “I lived with my host parents, Michel and Laurence, who are in their sixties, and they taught me so much,” he recalls. “First of all, they made amazing food. Because they were very serious about their wines, I’m a wine connoisseur now. They helped me with total immersion in the French culture.”

In his spare time, he explored Paris and various charming spots in Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. He visited medieval castles, did wine tastings, and took a day trip to Colmar, France, which “was like Disneyland, except it was real.” And he established relationships that will last a lifetime.

The whole experience also educated him about the profound differences between the United States and Europe. One symbol of this difference is the common strawberry.

“The comparison between a French strawberry and an American strawberry is a good example of the difference in what we eat,” he says. “The U.S. strawberry is huge, tasteless, and full of hormones. You bite into it and immediately under the red outside, it’s white. The strawberry from Europe is grown in the back yard, no pesticides, and it is deep red all the way to the core. It tastes like it’s covered in sugar already. Everything over there just tastes fresher.”

While expanding his comfort zone, Alex also got into his own zone, one that extends his region of influence far beyond himself, his home country, and the old borders of his world.

 “It has definitely changed me for the better,” he exclaims, “and is already shaping my future!” (May 2011)