Author Archives: jason hu

First steps in Switzerland – Part 1

Disclaimer: This was my experience during my particular exchange season; these to-do lists and processes may change pending updated ETH or UBC policies. None of the suggestions here should be taken as official instructions from any named organizations.

Here are a few things that I had to address in the first weeks. Make sure you keep an eye on the deadlines and instructions for all of these tasks. I’ll try to elaborate on them in the next couple posts.

  • Dorm contract and first payment (Rent + Security deposit)
  • Visa Authorization Fee (Payable to ETH)
  • Residency Permit (Payable to the City of Zurich)
  • Health Insurance (Payable to whichever company you choose)
  • Bank Account
  • Intensive German Class

Housing Search

I was stuck between finding my own place and roommates or taking advantage of WOKO, a student housing organization separate from ETH that places you in one of their dorms that vary wildly in configurations. Ultimately I went with WOKO as the dorms were typically 30-50% cheaper than sharing a 2-3 bedroom flat in Zurich. Plus, few landlords would choose an international student that communicated through phone calls over a local candidate (of which there are many).

WOKO dorms vary from townhouse style 4-8 bedroom units to true dorm buildings with shared bathrooms and kitchens across a whole floor of rooms. Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I lived in what’s considered the “party dorm”. While you can’t influence your first placement, you can then petition to change the building after hearing from WOKO. The advantages and disadvantages are all vice-versa between the two. My dorm housed mostly international students, from Master’s to Post-Docs in various fields, with STEM being the majority. I got to meet friendly, brilliant people from all over the world. Exchange tends to select for adventurous types, so it was easy finding conversation and activities in the lounge.

Somewhere in Flims – One of many excursions organized in the dorms. 9 countries represented here!

Pain points include sharing a huge kitchen with 160 amateur chefs. While cookware was provided, most of them were burnt, melted, or broken by the third month. I’d suggest buying your own if you have sensitive food allergies. Meal times meant crowded spaces too, so some strategy is involved in eating quickly. Some students formed cooking clubs, which seemed really successful. By the summer months, we had BBQ options outdoors. Some students almost ate all their meals at the school cafeteria. This option was about 40-60% more expensive than preparing your own meals.

The townhouses seemed quieter and much cleaner, with a higher likelihood of better shared areas like kitchens and bathrooms. However, friends reported a lot more variance in the “vibe” of the residence, with their experiences depending heavily on the personalities of their roommates. Naturally, it’s less likely that you’ll meet a best friend in a random set of 8 than 160. We had some people hanging out in the party dorm most nights just to get away from the isolation at home.

When you first move in to the WOKO residence, you’ll have to go to the separate WOKO office to sign the official contract, bring it to your residence manager/representative, and get your room checked over for pre-existing issues. Make sure you’re thorough with reporting any pre-existing issues, as failure to have written reports of a stain or dent can cost you at the end of the stay. Salaries are high in Switzerland, so you can imagine labour costs in repairing a wall or floor.

The first payment includes the security deposit and can typically be sorted out before you leave Canada. I wired it through my bank at a local branch fairly easily. Just bring in the deposit/first rent forms that WOKO provide once they place you somewhere.

Other steps will follow in the next post!
Jason

Moving like an Engineering Student

This post is for you if you’re a globetrotting student that is crazy enough to bring their own specialized equipment across the world. Whether it’s instruments, bikes, or other gear, your education has provided the skills to get your life across the pond at minimal cost.

Here’s my personal example of “Things I didn’t need to bring but wanted to”. Most of these are items I figured would have high mark-ups in Zurich if I were to buy them locally (spoiler – turns out that includes pretty much everything):

  • Full road bike with touring accessories and tools
  • Touring panniers, helmet, shoes, cycling clothes
  • Soccer and Futsal boots
  • Fly fishing rod, reel, and tackle
  • Trekking essentials – boots, cooking kit, knife + field sharpener (invaluable, as it turned out),

I bought my itinerary through a travel site that I cannot recommend to anyone, despite being an absurdly low cost (~$350 CAD one way to Zurich). The journey was three separate flights with separate security checks at each airport, totalling 25 hours to get here. I had to call each of my three airlines to confirm maximum luggage sizes. On the plus side, I was somehow afforded a free checked bag on top of the one I purchased, so my limits were as follows:

1 checked bag at 20kg,
1 checked bag at 15kg,
1 carry-on and 1 personal item totalling 10kg for both

I’m guessing most people will be weight limited rather than volume limited unless you want to bring a sleeping bag or gigantic teddy bear. This posed a problem for me, as most commercial bike boxes were 10-15kg by themselves and priced at $500-$800.

Protip: As cycling season rolls in, some shops can provide double-corrugated cardboard shipping boxes for bicycles when needed. These boxes are within the dimensional limits of checked luggages for most major airlines, so you just need to figure out how to pack them effectively. They weigh in at ~4kg and are priced at $0 + numerous thank-yous.

My next problem was transportation through all my security gates. I didn’t want to drag the thing or be limited to those airport carts. The next idea was to install a set of lightweight wheels. UBC is a treasure trove of useful spare/scrap materials, from which I found a set of rubber cart wheels, structural PVC foam, and PVC pipe. The MECH machine shop had scrap rod stock and hardware to bolt it all together. Here’s the first mockup:

First box mockup for dimensioning and cutting templates, approx. center of gravity marked

I wanted the box handles to sit naturally at my hand when I walked, creating just enough tilt to get the wheels rolling. Placing the wheels on the corner allowed for less-squirrely control and more adhesive surface area to bond to the box walls. To minimize the risk of catching edges or creating problems for luggage personnel, I hid the whole assembly within the box (improved aerodynamics too, ya know).

My main concern was smooth load transfer between the axle and cardboard walls. Cardboard is fairly good for abrasion resistance but I’d be putting the structure under bending . The PVC foam was a good material for high bonding surface area, stiffness, and low density. It took a while to find an adhesive that could confidently bond PVC to cardboard. A larger-diameter PVC pipe was used to house the thin aluminum axle to reduce stress concentration from foam to wheels, with aluminum bushings bridging the space between the axle and pipe.


Foam insert with wheel axle; CAD versus quick-&-dirty assembly. I realized it’d be impossible to install the solid foam chunk so I split it.

Packing night, wheels installed, and obligatory decals

Wheels were screwed into the ends of the axle loosely, so they could rotate independently for better steering. I loaded the box with weight over the axle as much as possible to minimize bending loads. Spare hardware was brought along in case the whole thing fell apart but the journey went smoothly. Unfortunately and despite my extensive (read: sparse) napkin calculations, some yielding occurred by the end of the journey between the PVC pipe and foam. I never considered bump/impact loading through the foam and should have added adhesive to the PVC tube for full bonding with the foam, rather than just press-fitting it.

The box survived the various layovers and multiple TSA inspections. The idea is to keep it around and get other exchange students to leave notes and stupid comments on it for the trip home.

Now that Spring’s arrived, I’ve taken the bike a few hundred kilometres around Switzerland and Germany thus far. It really is one of the best ways to explore this country, so whether you bring your own or rent one here, I’d highly recommend cycling for any European exchange.

Classes, cultures, and travels for the next post. Ciao for now!
Jason

Exchange Planning

Hoi,

I’ve spent just over two months in Europe by now and thought I’d reflect on the initial phases of this Coordinated International Experience. Here are the topics for today:

1) Degree scheduling and Preparation

2) Picking a Destination

1) Degree Scheduling and Preparation (see also: Kirsten Meng’s excellent CIE post)
CIE offers a unique set of services for Applied Science students, ensuring a smooth exchange. The APSC faculty have done an incredible amount of legwork to vet schools and their respective courses for equivalency. This means you’ll get to pick from a list of pre-approved courses and not worry about manually applying for transfer credits later. These courses typical apply to your technical elective requirements, opening up those respective semesters when you get home.

Fun fact: this kind of commitment to the undergraduate experience is what brought me to UBC MECH in the first place. I was fortunate enough to connect with Dr. Peter Cripton for an informational interview before choosing Applied Science for my second degree.

CIE can be done in a few slots within your degree schedule, but for me the most streamlined option was to schedule my exchange directly after MECH3.5. As a co-op student, that meant sacrificing a work term and replacing the income with a giant money pit. Fortunately, this pit spits out unique learning experiences and chocolate (the chocolate here, oh man). I wanted to graduate in 2019 and the Co-op office was gracious enough to waive the last work term requirement for CIE students. Other perks include reducing MECH4 by 9 credits and gaining access to course topics not offered at UBC or even in Canada. ETH Zurich in particular emphasizes entrepreneurial spirit and interdisciplinary projects; I’d highly recommend taking project courses if possible. Fundamental courses will likely be similar across the world, but each region will have unique perspectives on innovation, design, and other more-subjective areas of engineering. Take a look at the MAVT department at ETH for an example of the ongoing research and student projects happening here.

2) Picking a Destination

I first heard of ETH Zurich during my first co-op term at Verathon Medical. One particular project led me to work done by a UBC alum working at the Disney Labs in Zurich. As one does, I fell down the YouTube rabbit hole, and couldn’t believe some of the projects produced through ETH. It turns out there was a time when Switzerland was behind the rest of the world technologically, and the country’s catch-up mentality has propelled them to fund world-class technical institutes. When I discovered the ETH FSAE team, AMZ Racing, and their world-record setting FormulaE vehicle, I was hooked.

If you’re unsure, look at the course lists offered at each institution and get a sense for their specialties. Look at the country and culture too. Where do you want to invest your valuable time and energy? What kind of leisure activities resonate with you? What new things do you want to try? Personally, I made sure to list every free weekend I’d have during my semester abroad and created a list of activities with as many or more entries. I wanted to sacrifice sleep to absorb as much as possible from my exchange. Switzerland is an incredible melting pot of cultures and coming from a mixed upbringing, I never quite fit in a singular community; the same sort of uprooted diversity in Zurich resonated strongly with me. A short bus ride to cheap flights around Europe didn’t hurt either. I’ll write about some of the interesting people I’ve met during these travels in another post.

Sidenote: Despite situating in the center of Europe, Zurich is an expensive hub for flights around the continent (check travel websites for quotes out of Zurich versus Milan or Stuttgart; mein Gott!).

The next few posts will talk about packing and moving, first steps in Switzerland (there are many), budgeting (!), and chasing opportunity during your time abroad.

I might post a supplemental note on the ridiculous lengths I took to bring my bike to Europe. It was a great exercise in MECH3.5 design work and may help those looking to keep costs down. I probably saved about $1000 CDN all told.

Tschuss for now!
Jason

Crunch Times

Gruezi alles,

While I wait for my train to depart for Paris, nursing an espresso and thoroughly enjoying European life, I thought I’d write about the crunch time that usually happens around this time of year at UBC. If escaping to another continent isn’t an option (sorry Nick and Davey), there are a number of other strategies to get through the combination of MECH2/MECH3, and design team involvement.

For MECH2:

Like the tides, the periods of time before tests and competition deadlines roll by predictably every year. The key is to plan ahead and anticipate them from month one. This can be hard if you feel like you’re just barely able to keep your head above water, like I felt in MECH2.

While the course schedule might be unfamiliar, the MECH staff do a great job laying out the schedule as accurately as possible. Fall semester is a settling-in period, but by winter break you should be able to see your spring schedule and while your design team work may have been slow as teams ramp up, spring semester is always a rush. Make sure you take an hour or so to look through all your weeks and weekends, identify where big tests/deliverables lie, and front-load your design team work as much as possible. No one wants to be wrestling with SOLIDWORKS while attempting to absorb test material. In fact, I’d recommend pushing your team/project to reach every checkpoint as early as possible. The “unknown unknowns” that inevitably come up with design team work are always better managed the week before deadline, rather than at 5:00 am the day of.

For MECH3/3.5:

As you progress and gain a bit of experience in design teams, you’ll likely start speking to sponsors and manufacturing partners to get your parts made. Here are a few key things to know about design team manufacturing:

  1. Give sponsors as much lead time as possible, for both courtesy and project management sake. Sponsors donate their time and effort (and money) to help us out, meaning real customer POs will always run first. While a simple part may take only an hour to machine out, giving many weeks of lead-time allows your sponsor to optimize their machine schedules. CNC machines aren’t cheap and need to be running near-constantly to turn profits these days. This courtesy also reflects positively on your project management skills!

  2. Invariably, engineering changes will come up as certain fillets or cuts can’t be done on their equipment. You might spend weeks thinking you’ve polished your part, only to find out it’s not machinable. Try your best to consider the limitations set by your particular machinist/manufacturer at the very beginning of design; many of them post their machine capabilities and model numbers on their website. No one wants to spend hours milling out a variable-radius fillet because it “fits your aesthetic.”

Design team work has been the most memorable experiences I’ve had in MECH. The unexpected challenges might incite a bit of terror in the midst of school, but I look back on them with endearment. Sick, twisted endearment.

Next posts will be dedicated to my Coordinated International Experience in Switzerland. Trust me, you want to look into this option.

Tschuss,
Jason

MECH3/3.5 Recap

How is it already January? Einstein described the warping of time surrounding massive objects; clocks that appear faster further away from clocks on our planet. Surely, the engineering buildings at UBC produce their own temporal acceleration too.

For skimmers, here’s the briefing of the below paragraphs:

  1. I’d suggest joining a maximum of one design team and one professional organization during full time studies.
  2. Don’t underestimate the return to school after co-op; MECH3 assignments can sneak up on you.
  3. MECH3.5 is an exercise in time management and team dynamics. These factors are complementary and will provide compounding reductions in stress, if appreciated.
  4. For those interested in the CIE process starting around 3rd year, check out Kirsten Meng’s excellent post about it.

I meant to provide updates on the MECH3/3.5 experience in real-time, but I’ve repeated the mistake of overloading my plate at this wild undergraduate buffet. For those that enjoy the variety of extracurriculars, it can be a real struggle pacing yourself around UBC’s wide range of options.

MECH3 returns to the traditional semester course schedule students are accustomed to. At first glance it seems to indicate an easier semester for those returning from co-op; there’s a good amount of review at the beginning of term. However, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security (like I was). Without the weekly quizzes and frantic project timelines, I had a slow start to regular studying and homework. My midterm grades were an effective wake-up call, but with only one or two assessments per course, I could’ve had a much easier time ahead of the final had I been more proactive.

Lesson learned – Navvy-stokes and transient heat transfer problems laugh in the face of cramming.

MECH3.5 was a very different beast. Group work has its ups and downs, but it’s so important to develop an awareness of team dynamics and how to massage them to the group’s benefit. I had heard complaints of the unrealistic objectives and lack of prototyping in MECH328, but the opportunity to dig deeper into designing a product made it enjoyable. I also lucked out with the powerhouse team I was assigned (nearly all of them dedicated design team members, hint hint).

I’ll write one more post on study semesters and design teams, then catch up on my current adventures on exchange in Europe. I figure we can talk flights and packing, then the first few days. Spoiler: It’s been *amazing*.

Mental shifts and Start of Semester Rush

Hi everyone!

Listen, I get it. There’s a lot of reading to do in this program. I’ll try to break things down into thematic sections below so you can get to what interests you the most.

My predecessors have written about their academic experiences and course details in past posts (see September 2016 here), so I thought I’d write about the extracurricular side of things. Most of these posts will focus on topics related to co-op, design teams, and exchange experiences.

A. Choosing a Design Team

September arrives a bit differently every year. In MECH2, you’re corralled on-campus a week before everyone else, giving you the opportunity to strut around like you own the place or grieve uncontrollably for the loss of lazy summer days. It’s also recruitment season for our design teams, of which there are many.

You’ll see various info sessions and application forms posted across social media. How does one possibly decide which team would be the right fit? What if you like rockets and submarines equally? Here are a few tips from my own experiences:

  1. While there are natural fits for students that are determined to get into one particular industry, for those that are unsure, find a team with projects that will best develop your engineering skills. I didn’t grow up as a hard-core gearhead for example, but I knew Formula did the kinds of analyses and design work that interested me and that made it easier to stay committed to their projects.
  2. Prioritize a team with a dynamic that matches your personality. Team and work dynamics can make a huge difference in morale and learning. It’s one of the first things people bring up about their co-op jobs, for example.
  3. The foundations of engineering are present in any student team to some degree, so if you’re set on learning about fluid dynamics, or continuum mechanics, you aren’t limited to just one team that offers that sort of work. Ask each design team about their potential projects!

B. School vs Co-op mindsets

  1. Every semester following a co-op term has been a struggle for me. Co-op terms have typically ended the week right before school starts up again and the extra mental load of school took some time to adjust to.
  2. While many of my colleagues swore they’d review course material, excuses ran wild in the weeks leading up to September. Summers are hard, man; how do you fit course review in between hikes, road trips, and satisfying your Instagram followers? I’m guilty of missing this resolution too, but I feel it’s important in a program like ours, where upcoming material builds heavily from previous.

    And it’s not only good for learning sake, but for work ethic too. It gets your brain in the habit of staying alert past clocking-out of your shift. While we all endeavour to sleep at a reasonable hour, late night study sessions are all too common come midterm season.

What are some of your own challenges as school rolls back around? Let me know in the comments below. Also if you have any questions regarding student teams, interviews, typical work, etc., I’ll try to get to them before the next post.

Happy studying for now,
Jason