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Maymester in Vienna: A Q&A with Professor Billy Wood

Billy Wood, a senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering, spent the past four weeks as a Maymester in Vienna, Austria, teaching engineering design and graphics to first-year students. Wood shares his thoughts on why it’s important for students to study abroad.

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Will Scievelbein and Billy Wood with an actor dressed as Emperor Franz Joseph at the Schonbrunn


Billy Wood, a senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering, spent the past four weeks as a Maymester in Vienna, Austria, teaching ME 302/ME 210 — introduction to engineering design and graphics — to first-year students. Below, Wood shares his thoughts on why it’s important for students to study abroad. Visit Wood’s Maymester blog to read more about the group’s experiences in Vienna.

Why did you choose Vienna as the location for your Maymester?
Because of its rich history of design, engineering and architecture, Vienna was an obvious choice as a location to teach our young engineers.

The city has such a great public transportation system that the students can travel easily and quickly from their apartments to the school. The system also makes it unbelievably easy to travel to fantastic historical sites, museums, palaces and churches, and use them as part of our extended classroom.

I am acquainted professionally with several faculty members from the Technical University of Vienna and they have been very willing to welcome my students and to provide the occasional guest lecture. I am deeply indebted to the provost’s office for approving this proposal.

How is the dynamic of a Maymester different from classes taught on campus in Austin?
It is very challenging to cover 15 weeks of lectures, labs and a final project in four weeks. I have had to literally compress a week’s worth of work into a single day. I have been extremely anxious about covering a lecture topic with a homework assignment in the morning, and then expecting the students to utilize the material in a lab exercise the afternoon of the same day.

We have three hours of lecture and in-class work in the mornings two days a week, and two hours of lecture the other two days. The free hour on those days is utilized for an introductory German class. After an hour lunch break we reconvene for a three-hour computer lab.

Because of the rapid pace of the course, I try to give the students time to complete the work in class. This allows us to do short walking tours of important sights near campus. Also, by working hard four days a week, we have Fridays available for city field trips, performances and other special events.

What makes teaching in Vienna unique?
Using Vienna as a laboratory is unique. It is a rich tapestry of examples for the students to appreciate. Early in the course we cover the concepts of geometric construction. Many of the historic examples we are able to visit were constructed centuries before modern construction techniques were available or even existed.

It is amazing — this laboratory of Vienna that presents such monuments to the material we are covering.

I think another unique attribute of the course is the exposure to a mass transportation system that works and moves a city of 1.6 million people around efficiently. The students have to use the public transportation system to go to and from classes and to get around in the city.

Students gather at the farewell dinner in Vienna


Why is study abroad important for students?
This is a global economy we live in. Many of the companies that recruit and employ our graduates are multinational companies. At conferences I have heard CEOs of companies such as Nokia extol us faculty and study abroad advisers of the merits of employing young engineers with international experience.

Study abroad opportunities take our students out of their comfort zone. They have to immerse themselves in a different culture and language. They run the risk of jeopardizing their grade point. They have to learn to survive in an alien environment.

What do you hope your students take away from this experience?
The most important thing my students can take away from this experience is to realize that it is very easy to integrate into a foreign culture and to adapt to the setting.

The course I am teaching is a required course for three different engineering majors, and it is taken by freshmen during their first year at UT. I am hoping this experience will encourage them to plan for a future semester or a full year of studying abroad to increasing their international experience. I would like to see each and every one of these students spend an additional semester or year abroad before they graduate. Students who participate in a Maymester have already been abroad once. They are much more likely to participate in an advanced study abroad opportunity.

Has this Maymester already started generating ideas for next year’s program?
Absolutely. I have ideas for getting the students more prepared before we leave. I plan to give them a better introduction to the German language. I am already considering different places to visit and sights to see. I am considering altering the sequence of the course to better cover the material in the time allotted, and to use the laboratory that is Vienna more.