Pioneering Engineers Flock to Rural Germany

Jean-François Lévesque, from Canada's Université de Sherbrooke, received a scholarship from the DAAD's International Quality Network program. He now attends the future-oriented M.Sc. course for mechatronics at the University of Applied Sciences at Ravensburg-Weingarten in Germany. Lévesque shares his impressions with Next Wave readers.

The area around Lake Constance in the Dreiländereck of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria is most famous for holiday-making, due to its location near the Alps and the beautiful lake formed by the river Rhine. A closer look reveals that many successful industrial companies serving the world market are located in this rural area: the gearbox manufacturer ZF, the engine supplier MTU, and the satellite designer Dornier/Astrium Space, to name a few. Accordingly, the area has attracted many highly skilled engineers.

Against this promising background, the small university of sciences (Fachhochschule, or FH) in the lake's vicinity, FH Ravensburg-Weingarten, decided to adopt international cooperation in education and research as one of its special trademarks. Two years ago, it launched its innovative M.Sc. program in the future-oriented discipline of mechatronics (mechanics + electronics), with great success. Local industry supported this new approach from the beginning with scholarships for foreign students, offers of integrated industrial training, and awards for students with the best results.

Today the M.Sc. in mechatronics is by far the most popular program in engineering at the FH Ravensburg-Weingarten: More than 140 students from all over the world compete for one of 15 study places each year. All courses are taught completely in English with an accompanying intensive course in German. In three semesters, students receive technical skills in mechatronics and also become familiar with the German language and culture.

Much of the concept's great impact is thanks to the close bonds that have been developed with similarly oriented partner universities and research facilities. The FH Ravensburg-Weingarten provides an excellent example of how international networks based on data links and university partnerships open up excellent new opportunities for active universities--even far away from big cities such as Munich or Berlin. This view is strongly supported by Germany's Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, whose president, Theodor Berchem, declared such cooperation with foreign first-class universities to be essential in establishing German universities in the first league of international science.

DAAD recently rewarded centers of excellence in international university cooperation through its International Quality Network program. The University at Ravensburg-Weingarten was among the winners. It may be small, with only 1400 students, but it convinced the jury based on the progress it has already made in developing the internationalization concept through its English-language mechatronics course and integrated tele-education components with international university partners.

The prize money of DM 1 million will help the FH Ravensburg-Weingarten and its international partners from the U.S. to Bangkok and Finland to establish an international network in the interdisciplinary field of mechatronics, which will be highly attractive to international students.

This international network is exactly the way I learned about Ravensburg. At my home university I worked on an advanced test environment for the altitude control system of satellites, and learnt about this partnership of my university and FH Ravensburg-Weingarten within the EU/Canada Cooperation in Higher Education project "TEAM." This project, " Tele-Education in Aerospace control and Mechatronics," allows students from both universities to use equipment for interesting laboratory experiments in the areas of mechatronics and aerospace control across the Atlantic via the Internet.

Further partners contributing experiments to this virtual laboratory, which is available via the Internet but physically spread over Canada and Europe, are the University of Victoria, the University of Toronto, the Universitá di Bologna, and Aalborg University. Having visited Weingarten University in cyberspace, I wanted to work firsthand with the advanced mobile robots for industrial and space applications in Klaus Schilling's research lab. The most prominent vehicle that this group is working on is MIDD, a Mars rover developed in Weingarten in an international consortium under contract to the European Space Agency.

Just recently, my fellow Canadian students in Weingarten (Dave, Simon, and Nicolas) and I, together with Prof. Schilling, were invited to demonstrate our research results in Brussels during the 5th anniversary celebrations of the EU/Canada Cooperation in Research and Training program. In the residence of the Canadian ambassador and in front of the ambassador, several members of the European parliament, and Viviane Redding, European Commissioner for Youth, we demonstrated the Mars rover MIDD. It was operated via Internet robot manipulators in Canada to assemble components, and vehicles in Weingarten were taken around a maze-like obstacle course. With these experiments we showed the great economic potential that advanced telematics methods will have in telediagnosis and telemaintenance of remote industrial plants.

Further information on the mechatronics program can be found at the FH Weingarten Web site.

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