8500 Miles by Plane, 1500 by Car – University Trip to the US

During the last few days I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Texas in the US for a project I have been doing together with Michele Bertoni – a fellow student who came to Munich from Italy for an Erasmus semester, Ryan Lindeman, Maithaa Alhousani, Chris Castro and Jose Contreras (all 4 students of Texas A&M University) and their project sponsors Gazoo Inc. and Texas Engineering Experiment Station.

World map showing copuntries and faces
A truly international team

The project involved the creation of an app and a hardware device. Without going too much into technical details, the vision is to be able to use any computer from remote from any middle-class Android smartphone or tablet. In order to do this, the user connects a hardware box to the HDMI and USB ports of the computer. This box that the American part of the team is developing then acts as a bridge between the app and the computer. While there is software that offers similar capabilities, with our solution there would be little to no complicated configuration before you can start using it.

In total, there were 5 of us traveling there: Nils Kannengie├čer, a PhD candidate at the Chair for Operating Systems at TUM in his last year who is the instructor for the Android Practical Course, Philipp Fent and Benjamin Sautermeister, two German students of the upcoming term of the course that will be working on a different project with Texas A&M University, and finally my teammate Michele and me.

Photo from plane
Somewhere mid-flight

I chose to take the cheapest flight possible that literally took me an hour in the wrong direction to Istanbul and then – after a stop-over of 2 hours – to Houston.

Having gone through an extremely tedious passport control in Istanbul before getting on the plane (one of the security men actually followed me onto the plane to look at my passport one last time) I arrived in Houston a few hours late and was greeted by all the other German students, our instructor and two of the American students.

After a drive of some one-and-half hours we arrived where Michele and me were staying: Thanks to the hospitality of Ryan’s parents we did not have to stay at a hotel but could stay privately instead.

The next morning we went to university: What is really impressive is the sheer size of the campus: While our own campus in Garching is not exactly tiny either, the campus of Texas A&M really beats it by lengths: All the buildings are spread out throughout a park that has the size of medium German city alone. Even though it was very early in the morning you could already see students sitting in the sun enjoying the first coffee of the day or going for a morning run before class starts.

Pennies lying at the foot of a statue
There is this tradition to leave a penny at the foot of this statue right in the heart of this campus if you need good luck in an exam. I’m not sure if lollipops count as well…

We spent the next few days alternating between working on the project (including the occasional meeting or presentation), getting to know College Station/Bryan and the surrounding area and enjoying the summer-like temperatures during the day, and trying different types types of food, visiting bars at North Gate, drinking American beer, getting to know the locals and spending some time with our teammates who had already become friends during their visit to Munich in January.

As Texan as it gets – A small bar in the countryside a few miles from College Station

A few words on American beer: Against popular belief, there are American beers that (almost) measure up to original Bavarian beer (e.g. Shiner). On the other hand there are also beers that do an amazing job at fulfilling every stereotype about American beer (I’m looking at you, Bud Light).

Dixie Chicken
The Dixie Chicken – a famous student watering hole. And yes, they serve good beer

On Wednesday we drove down to Houston to pay the space center a visit: It really was great fun, I got to touch a piece of the moon (feels like a tile but probably because so many people touched it before me), see a space shuttle and got to stand on the flight deck of a reconstruction. But by far the most impressive thing was the Saturn V rocket with a length of over 120m.

Space Shuttle Independence on top of a NASA Shuttle Carrier (a modified 747) on display at Houston space center

And of course – being the Trekkie that I am – I immediately had to take a photo of this famous spacecraft as well:

Shuttlecraft Galileo NCC-1701/7 from TNG
Shuttlecraft Galileo NCC-1701/7 from TNG
I wonder if would also look so relaxed in zero gravity: In the cockpit of a 1:1 replica of a space shuttle
I wonder if would also look so relaxed in zero gravity: In the cockpit of a 1:1 replica of a space shuttle

Lower stages of a Saturn V rocket - 5 tourists for scale ;)
Lower stages of a Saturn V rocket – 5 tourists for scale ­čśë [Photo courtesy of Nils Kannengie├čer]
After a long and eventful day we went “home” to College Station. I really got a feeling for the vastness of the state of Texas because we did not take the main highway but saw some of the countryside. We rounded that day off with a steak at Sodalaks.

Enjoying some massive steaks (1kg) at Sodalaks (and they are not even the biggest ones they have) [Photo courtesy of Nils Kannengie├čer]
Enjoying some massive steaks (1kg) at Sodolaks (and they are not even the biggest ones they have) [Photo courtesy of Nils Kannengie├čer]
After trying on a few cowboy hats (no, I’m not posting these photos on here, try chatting me up if you want to see them ­čśë ), we went traveling for the weekend. Our first stop was Fort Worth where we had an original western experience and even saw some real cowboys driving cattle down the main road (and yes, that obviously was for tourist reasons).

Cattle being driven through the Stockyards at Fort Worth [Photo courtesy of Philipp Fent]
Cattle being driven through the Stockyards at Fort Worth [Photo courtesy of Philipp Fent: CC-BY-SA 4.0]
After that we went to Wichita Falls to see a monster truck show. It was the only one I have ever seen so far.

For the night all four of us students shared a room with two king-size beds but luckily everyone was tired enough that nobody minded the occasional snore.

The next morning we were up again very early to head to Hamilton pool. Ryan and his girlfriend also wanted to join us, but while they got in without any problems, we were told that the park was overcrowded by a park ranger who insisted we couldn’t even wait for it to get less crowded. So instead we headed to the Westcave Reserve a few miles down the road where we saw some amazing nature totally undisturbed by man.

West Cave [Picture courtesy of Benjamin Sautermeister]
West Cave [Photo courtesy of Benjamin Sautermeister]
Grass Land and Restricted Area for some reason
Grass Land at West Cave (And Restricted Area for some reason)

After that we headed to Austin to meet up with Ryan and his girlfriend for some Mexican food. Later, we hit the bars on 6th street and contributed our part to keeping Austin weird.

The next morning we decided to give Hamilton Pool another try and that turned out to be exactly the right decision. Even though the temperature was “only” about 25 ┬░C there was nothing more refreshing than a swim in the pool.

Last (partial) group picture before going for a swim [Photo courtesy of Benjamin Sautermeister]
Last (partial) group picture before going for a swim [Photo courtesy of Benjamin Sautermeister]
Hamilton pool in its entire beauty
Hamilton pool in its entire beauty [Photo courtesy of Benjamin Sautermeister]
After our return from Austin we met with Glenn Knepp, the CTO of Gazoo who showed us around the awesome building they share with a few other startups (whatever you think a workplace should have, they probably have it somewhere in the building) and shared with us some exciting glimpses into future projects of his company over dinner.

The roofgarden at Gazoo - They actually have a golf course on there as well [Photo courtesy of Philipp Fent]
The roofgarden at Gazoo – They actually have a golf course on there as well [Photo courtesy of Philipp Fent: CC-BY-SA 4.0]

The two remaining days were mostly used for wrapping up all the project work since the TUM part of the project ended during our stay in College Station:

After burning the midnight oil we had the opportunity to present the final version of our app on Tuesday morning to our teammates from TAMU, Nils – our instructor,┬á Dr. Joseph A. Morgan – the professor for the American part of the project, and Glenn.┬á The meeting took place in a very relaxed atmosphere and we were able to present all the hard work we had done these past months.

Later we had the opportunity to join a presentation by the Texas A&M students where they showcased the status of their hardware project and talked Glenn through the technical challenges they are facing at the moment and how they want to overcome them. While most of the technical details were way to deep into Electrical Engineering territory for me to contribute anything useful it was still a blast to see deeper into what had basically been a black box for us for most of the project.

One of our American teammates hard at work at the hardware - well posing for a picture actually ;)
Ryan – one of our American teammates – working in their hardware lab [Photo courtesy of Benjamin Sautermeister]

In the evening we (all 4 students) gave a short presentation at the Innovation Underground in the Grand Stafford Theater in Downtown Bryan together with our instructor: The university is looking for sponsors to continue the exchange after this term since there is no funding available anymore. While Nils introduced the crowd to TUM, his chair and the Practical Course we talked briefly about the project and focused on the opportunities we had during the project and how working in an international, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary team benefited both the project and us personally.

Maybe this event made it possible for another group of students to get the same opportunity we had.

After our talk, Jose Quintana from Innovation Underground showed us around downtown Bryan and their building and introduced us to a lot of awesome projects they do with the startups at the Innovation Underground (including for example a project to use pieces of art as a  QR-Code to add information on the actual art itself and a company that applies technologies used for game development to data visualization).

After that we headed to Sodolaks for a last American steak. After a short night Philipp, Benjamin and me had one day left in College Station while the other two already headed to the Airport. We decided to spend that day relaxing in the sun and eating frozen yogurt. When time to say our goodbyes came we were really surprised by how fast the past few days had went by: At least to me it seemed like yesterday that I stepped off the plane and was first amazed by the high temperatures.

So the thing we can say after 10 exciting days, some serious work on the project, a lot of fun and way too much good food is: Thank you to everyone who helped to make this amazing trip a reality: TUM for providing the necessary funding, our instructor for the expert-guidance and the many tips, and last but not certainly not least to Ryan’s parents who invited us to stay at their place! We really felt at home,┬á even though we stayed only so short.

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