For nearly a decade, Valpo engineering students have traveled to Disney Resorts in Orlando and Anaheim to participate in tours, lectures, and workshops as part of their course curriculum. Led by Mark Budnik, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Paul H. Brandt Professor in Engineering, this partnership provides students with exclusive access to the Disney operation, where they gain unique insight and invaluable hands-on experience.

“I have been taking students on class trips to Walt Disney World Resort or Disneyland Resort for several years,” Professor Budnik says. “The program began as an opportunity for students to experience engineering outside of a standard field trip and has progressed into a unique partnership between Valpo and Disney. Most importantly, it allows our students to learn firsthand about Disney’s approach to creativity, leadership, and innovation.”

Electrical engineering students were the first to participate. Since then, it has been expanded to all engineering disciplines as well as other Valpo colleges, with more than 180 students participating. Engineering students enroll in an elective topics course, Creativity and Innovation in the Engineering Design Process. During the first half of the semester, they are introduced to the design process and identify problems, requirements, and constraints as they prepare for the trip to one of the Disney parks.

After hearing about the exciting experiences of his friends and classmates, Chase Greenhagen ’17 decided to enroll in the elective course.

“It was one of the most applicable and by far the most memorable class I took while studying computer engineering at Valpo,” Chase says. “It emphasized creative and out-of-the-box solutions in a way that no other engineering class had to offer while also supplying the engineering tools necessary to cultivate these solutions and bring them to reality.”

Chase traveled to Disneyland in fall 2016, where he felt that Disney magic, but perhaps in a different way. Disney is known for creating unforgettable moments for all, and that held true for Chase, who was particularly struck by the fact that it is engineering that makes so many of those moments possible.

“Coming from an engineering background, my biggest takeaway was that just as Imagineers are the magic behind the scenes, we too can be a source of magic,” Chase says. “And, who says an engineer has to work at Disney to be an Imagineer?”

The five-day trip takes place about halfway through the semester and features a mix of classes, behind-the-scenes tours, meetings with Disney executives, and hands-on workshops, not to mention visits to a few park attractions. The on-site classes are led by Disney cast members and are presented through small-group, activity-based assignments with a focus on creativity, innovation, leadership, and teamwork. These topics aren’t only taught, they’re experienced through workshops and tours, which allow students to see the skills implemented in the Disney park itself.

The Disney partnership, just one of innumerable experiential learning opportunities provided at Valpo, gives students a chance to get real-world, hands-on experience, where they put what they learn from the Disney team into practice by working to solve tasks or problems together. With the walls of a traditional classroom removed, students have the opportunity to develop their skill set and learn about the engineering design process in one of the most creative environments in the world.

After returning to Valpo, students spend the second half of the semester discussing and applying what they learned through a comprehensive project. Focused on the engineering design process, they select an approach, develop a model, and then iterate the design to measure the outcomes against the desired results. Upon completion of the course, students will have enhanced their skills and knowledge of the design process and gained valuable experience that will benefit their professional careers.

“Rather than teaching a specific skill, the Disney class teaches a creative engineering lifestyle and mindset for students to live out in their career regardless of what skills they are using,” Chase says. “This makes Disney applicable to all engineers and is why I would recommend it to any of my friends in the engineering department.”

But Disney has applicability far beyond engineering, which led to expansion of the Disney trip in fall 2017. Looking to advance student learning outcomes in a nontraditional setting, Amy Cory, Ph.D., MPH, RN, associate professor of nursing and public health, led a small group of students on a pilot fall break trip to Disneyland Park in conjunction with the College of Engineering. This experience provided students an inside look at operations within the Disney Corporation that focus on health.

From their emergency response system to health-related guest services to safety and security, employees from across Disney shared their expertise in various areas that promote the health of both guests and cast members. When thinking of Disney, health-related phenomena may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but Disney has a track record of excellence in health promotion and disease prevention, and by studying their systems, the general population can be better protected.

In February, the Disneyland trip was incorporated into the public health nursing class as a clinical component, with 12 students taking part in the trip, including Mary DeBartolo ’18. And, in the future, the trip will be an opportunity open to all Valpo students interested in public health.

Mary gained insight into public nursing at Disney through presentations and discussions in areas that included fire safety, security, and employee health, which will enable her to address hazardous public situations in the future.

“On the trip, I learned so much about how nurses care for people within Disney parks,” Mary says. “The experience changed my perspective on nursing. We are so used to nurses being in the hospital, but in reality, nursing skills can be applied anywhere … even in the most magical place on earth.”

The generosity of Nils Lindfors ’58, who earned his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, in establishing the Nils Lindfors Endowed Disney Internship Fund has provided important resources to support the program.

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