TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — This spring 13 engineering students at The University of Alabama are learning automotive engineering through a class taught entirely in German.
This is most likely the first German-taught engineering course for American students in the Southeast, said Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian, professor in mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering who is teaching the class.
The students, who come to UA from around the United States, speak English as their first language but learned German as part of an innovative program offered through the UA College of Engineering. The program, called Two Steps Ahead, is an exchange, internship and academic track designed to give students experience with state-of-the-art automotive engineering technology and exposure to the high-tech environment in the German auto-industry.
The course taught this semester is “Grundlagen der Fahrzeugsysteme,” or “Fundamentals of Automotive Systems,” and is for the cohort of students in the second year of the program, ahead of their junior year to be spent in Germany.
“The purpose of the class is to experience the German style of teaching and to understand technical phrases,” Balasubramanian said. “Technical terms in German tend to be combined into one long word, and these are things they would not learn in a conventional German language class, and they need to know it,” said Balasubramanian, also executive director of UA’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies.
Two Steps Ahead began in fall 2014 in partnership with a German university and Mercedes-Benz as a student exchange program aimed to provide students deep international industrial, educational and cultural experiences.
“The idea that I would actually be able to speak the language not only in a social setting, but use the language professionally was a huge draw for me,” said Carter Boyle, a sophomore from Madison, Mississippi, studying electrical engineering and taking the class. “I wasn’t sure it was going to work from the beginning, but I understand everything Dr. B is saying, and I only started a year-and-a-half ago. I’m surprised the program is possible, but it is.”
Each year, a group of freshmen from computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering are selected through an invitation process to join Two Steps Ahead.
Once admitted to the exchange program, students take a rigorous course of study that couples engineering and computer science instruction with German-language courses that includes a language-immersion program in the summer after their freshman year. Students also take courses on automotive engineering that teaches the mechanical, electrical and computer systems necessary in advanced vehicles.
During the second half of their sophomore year, students complete their language courses and take an automotive engineering course in German before possibly working for a regional auto manufacturer or supplier during the summer.
Students spend the first semester of their junior year studying at Hochschule Esslingen, University of Applied Sciences, in Germany taking classes credited toward their bachelor’s degree before staying the spring semester to work for Mercedes-Benz or one of its suppliers. They return their senior year to finish their degree.
Balasubramanian said teaching the course in German at UA means the students will not be limited to courses taught in English while studying at Hochschule Esslingen.
“This way we can help them to choose courses from the large number typically offered at the Universities of Applied Sciences,” he said.
When he began the program, Balasubramanian said many questioned whether students could take classes and work in Germany after studying the language for only two years. Getting to this point is a credit to the students and the excellent instruction from the German program at UA, he said.
“All except one in this class started learning the language from scratch as freshman, and now after 18 months they are listening to a class fully in German and will write their exams and projects in German,” he said. “What people told us would not be possible is happening.”
J.P. Smith, a sophomore from Louisville, Kentucky, studying mechanical engineering, said he did not apply to other universities after learning of Two Steps Ahead because of the strong connections and experience to be gained.
“Finding a program like this, one that not only has direction but potential was huge,” Smith said. “It was a big pull for me to come to this university in the first place to have the opportunity for an internship with Mercedes-Benz and the possibility to be in Germany for a year.”
Students in the program are already attracting interest from multi-national automotive companies, and the benefits for those who complete Two Steps Ahead are great, Balasubramanian said.
“They will be fully immersed in real-world challenges and will be better equipped to handle them,” he said. “They will be really valuable for these companies.”
Before joining the UA College of Engineering in fall 2012, Balasubramanian was vice president of group research and advanced engineering at Mercedes-Benz in Germany, responsible for product innovations and process technologies.
He retired after nearly 40 years as a research and development engineer, and he is working to strengthen ties between UA and the automotive industry while aligning some coursework to meet automotive industry needs.
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.