Students examine sustainability during spring break in Germany

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Some Penn State Harrisburg students used their spring break to visit Germany, where they got to see the inside of a windmill, a Mercedes-Benz factory run mostly by robots, solar arrays “as far as the eye can see,” according to their professor, and a country that takes sustainability very seriously.

Rick Ciocci and Shirley Clark, faculty members in the School of Science, Engineering and Technology, led the nine students, whose majors included engineering, business management and computer science, on their trip abroad. The tour was tied to a three-credit general elective called Foundations of Leadership in Sustainability, and it might convince some of the students to do a full semester abroad in Germany.

Roman Best is one of them. He is a mechanical engineering major with a political science minor entering his junior year, and he has a lot of interest in renewable energy.

“I'd like to go back and explore,” he said. “I learned a lot about how they're dealing with the problems of sustainability — the policies they're doing to shift to renewables. ... They do a lot of research there in that field.”

Best said he was impressed with the visit to the inside of a windmill, which looks bigger on the inside than it does on the outside and contains a huge generator and an elevator for maintenance workers.

Equally impressive were the small villages where half the homes sported solar panels.

The trip was arranged through the Hochschule Darmstadt, University of Allied Science. Penn State Harrisburg already has an arrangement with the German university for a semester-long exchange program.

A study-abroad program in Germany looks good on a resume for engineering students, Best said, and he thinks it would help his career.

“It could bring a whole new perspective to the workforce,” he said. “Not only is renewable energy good for the country, but it's really cool.”

Catherine Cornelius, at 54, is a nontraditional student and just graduated with a business administration major, so she will not be returning to Germany to study, although if she were younger she would love to. She said she went on the trip because the subject fascinates her.

“Everything there points to sustainability,” she said. “Even the big dumpsters are split into three for paper, aluminum and trash. They waste a lot less. Windmill farms and solar panels make a lot of the energy in Germany. ... It was a real eye-opener for me.”

The students packed a lot into their week, visiting efficient manufacturing plants, renewable energy arrays, engineering firms, the university, and regional planning offices.

Ciocci, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said he hopes the spring-break tour will encourage more student exchanges. Several of the students expressed interest.

“Germany is far ahead of us in a leadership role,” he said. “They plan to get rid of nuclear by 2032, they're pushing hard on renewables. They're one of the leaders in making this stuff happen, that's why these visits are important.”