Hi, I’m Ben and I’m a 3rd Year Aeronautics and Astronautics student. I’m now on an Industrial Placement Year, though before that I spent semester 2 of the year studying in Toulouse, France, at ISAE-SUPAERO.
I’d planned to do a semester abroad even before I started uni, and it was one of the reasons I chose my course at Southampton. I am so glad I did it, as I had so many great experiences!
Arrival and Settling in
Due to the many different term times of all the students, the semester was set to start a little earlier than Southampton, at the start of the second week of semester 1 exams. Since check in for the on campus accommodation was only on weekdays, this meant that I had to leave Southampton the evening of my last exam to arrive on the Friday. Not having checked how the city’s public transport worked prior it was a little difficult getting to the uni from the airport. not helped by a worker in the bus station sending me the complete wrong way along the metro! I got there eventually and got settled in to my room, on the top floor of one of the building with a great view of the canal. The room was a little small, though not too bad, with a fridge/freezer and microwave/oven, and an ensuite. I did choose to go for the smallest size room, though. The shared kitchen downstairs only had a few induction hobs and a sink for the whole building. It wasn’t too bad a situation though, as many students seemed to cook in their rooms, so there was only a short period each day where it got busy and it was otherwise quite quiet and easy to cook. While it sometimes became a bit messy, cleaners came in every day.
SUPAERO had set us up with Toulbox, a company who works with the unis in the city to support exchange students. They got us in touch with local banks to have meetings to set up our accounts, before we then met with them to validate our visas and apply for CAF, a monthly grant contribution to rent from the French government. We were also given transport cards, prepaid for the first month.
In the first week we started with introduction sessions, then had a french lesson each morning. We were also taken on a tour of the city centre to get an idea of how to get around and to find out some of the city’s history.
Toulouse is a lovely place. The centre is known as the pink city for the colour of the buildings, and there are beautiful views of the river, from where you can often see Airbus’ Beluga XLs taking off from the main airport. It is very walkable and there are a number of good bars, clubs and restaurants. As part of Occitanie, some of the signage also contains the local language. Toulouse, and the local area, are known for growing violets, Toulousian sausage and Cassoulet, a stew with beans, various meats and often Toulousian sausage.
The area is classed as sub-tropical – something I should have worked out before getting there – meaning that while it was a similar temperature to the UK at the start of the semester, once it started warming up, rather than the typical arid, Mediterranean climate, there were often short but heavy rain storms in the afternoons, quickly followed up by some more sun. On a few occasions there was even some snow and hail.
The university is situated towards the outskirts of the city and sits between a number of other higher education institutes, but there’s good public transport; buses, metro and rent-a-bike services, to get to the centre. It’s also possible to walk or cycle there along the edge of the canal du Midi, and it’s also a great route to run along – it’s shaded by the classically-French plain trees, you’ll see an Airbus facility not far from the uni and there was regularly a guy slacklining across it between trees.
The University and Course
SUPAERO is part of the ISAE group, a collaboration of a number of Aerospace Universities. It is a very selective higher education facility with courses in English and French for Master’s students and above. Because of this, the exchange programme is the only Bachelor’s course there, so, unlike some of the other semesters abroad, there are (almost) no optional modules as they are all run especially for the programme.
The modules we studied were:
- Representation, Analysis and Dynamic Systems Control
- Aircraft Structures
- French Language and Cultural Discovery
- Applied Aerodynamics and Propulsion
- Preliminary Aircraft Design
The European method of teaching involves lots more contact time, but to cater better for international students, the course reduces this to lectures mainly in the mornings (normally from 9 or 10, though some were at 8); leaving time for homework, work on group projects and socialising in the afternoons. The homework, like at Southampton, was mainly unmarked and for you to do for your own practise and revision. For most of the modules, there was a 3 or 4 hour class each week, with 5 hours being designated for Aircraft Design, and a 2 and 2.5 hour class for French on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The controls, structures and aerodynamics modules were fairly similarly structured, with some content previously covered in other modules at Southapton, though most being new. Each had a few tests and projects to do, with a report on each project. As part of the propulsion section of the aerodynamics module they showed us their collection of jet engines, including one from an Airbus, and another of a concorde, which took up the whole back wall. We also saw their large wind tunnel and their jet engine test room, results from which were used for a project.
I didn’t find the teaching of the controls and structures modules to be as good: The controls teacher I didn’t find to be the best, and we had a number of structures teacher, which made the module a little disjointed, not helped by the huge amount of material that we went through, including a number of hours on FEA being crammed into half the normal time. At the end of the semester we had a chance to provide feedback, which they seemed to be very receptive of so hopefully these points will be improved. I think the projects for these modules definitely made up for their shortfalls in lectures.
These projects included sizing aircraft fuselage components, designing an aerofoil, wing and tailplane to meet specific requirements, and analysing jet engine performance. For controls there was an option to do an aerodynamics or space based project – making an autopilot system or a control system for a reaction wheel! All bar one of these was done in groups, giving a realistic industry environment. Most of the coursework projects, and a few additional lectures, were given by industry experts, including from Dassault, Airbus and Safran! Designing the reaction wheel in controls with Helène Evain from ESA was one of my favourite parts of the course, and definitely the best part of the module!
I liked to use LATEX to write up my reports, and it makes it so much easier and nicer looking than word or docs. I’d recommend getting started on Overleaf so you have the hang of it by the time you’re there, as there is a bit of a learning curve at the start. It’s really good at handling citations, so I’d recommend you use it for your dissertation too!
The Aircraft Design module was completely coursework based, run by an employee from ATR. The first couple of weeks gave the basics of flight mechanics, since not all students necessarily have a basis in aerospace – we had an automotive student and even a computer scientist that was doing it as part of a year out of uni. Once that was completed, the lectures would start with an explanation on a section of the design methodology, then in our groups of 3 (because of the numbers I was unluckly enough to be in a 2, though this was apparently accounted for in more generous marking), we worked out how to implement this, either in code or a spreadsheet and using SUPAERO’s own design program. Towards the end of the semester, when the design process was complete, we had to do a presentation of our design to a couple of the professors. They gave feedback, and working on that we then had to write a report on our design and the process that got us there. Being 100% coursework based, after doing this it was finished and we got a couple of weeks to focus on the other modules.
Classes for the French module were split into two groups, depending upon prior fluency. Those with more experience had one of the classes each week with students of the other courses. We all really loved our french teachers and they did a great job, my level advanced a lot whilst I was there. Alongside activities, there was a lot of conversation in the class and with the teacher so we could all practise speaking and listening. Since it is also on culture, as well as language, there were a few sessions where we spoke about french customs, gestures, stereotypes e.t.c. At one point there was an event with most of the non-French students at the University where some people came in to tell us a little of Francophone muscial history over the last 80 years or so. It was quite fun, and they performed the songs live. Of course it ended with some Stromae (which is verlan for Maestro = Master).
We also watched a film in class, which is based on the South’s… superioritiy complex over the North, and the accent differences between them.
I say there was ‘almost’ no choice in modules, as there is also a research project that you can choose to do, and if you already have a basis in French, you can instead choose to join another language course. There are a large number of other languages to choose from, including spanish, italian, german, arabic, Russian and mandarin.
Those that choose to do the research project are put into small groups and each given a project to work on, and then write a report on. If you’re doing this module, you’ll stay on for a month longer to work on it full time, then you have another month afterwards to complete the write up, during which you can return home. This year’s projects included adding hypersonic functionality to the university’s own CFD software and designing a blimp.
With the number of courseworks and occasional tests in each module, the weighting of the final exams is between 20-40%, meaning there is a lot less pressure on you in the final week! I think this system is a lot better than at Southampton: it allows you to be tested on your ability to apply your knowledge, work in a team, write reports and problem solve, rather than simply on whether you have managed to memorise the many equations taught, blindly following the methodologies given in lectures. One of my lecturers in first year told me that they were wanting to move in this direction and after my time in Toulouse I would really like to see it happen in Southampton too.
As part of the course we also went on a trip to the cité de l’espace, Toulouse’s space museum, with a number of satellites, rocket engines and interactive ways of teaching about space exploration. It was a fun afternoon out at the start of the course to be able to better get to know each other. Whilst there we also watched a film in the planetarium. We were meant to do a trip to Aeroscopia too, Airbus’ museum, however it was called off multiple times due to a number of strikes – the French living up to their stereotype. I still made it there, though, as a few of us went in a group after exams. It was an impressive museum, with a Guppy, A380, two concordes and many more aircraft.
The Course Members
There were 22 of us on the course, with a wide range of nationalities present. The majority were Singaporean or from the USA. A few of the other students were from Japan and India, with Poland, Sweden, Canada and Australia also represented. There was one other student from my course – we hadn’t come across each other before so we met up before travelling up.
For the most part we all got on well and became close. We would often cook together, and play board and card games. A few times we even set up the switch in the kitchen to play – Jess, from Australia, and I were a great team in Overcooked!
Each year there is an airshow at an airfield to the west of Toulouse, which is organsied and run by students from SUPAERO, and a couple of other aerospace schools in the city. It happened to be on my birthday, and I went along with a number of the other students. There were many planes there, including from Airbus and ATR, alongside Rafales, which is bascially a typhoon, but louder. That evening we went into a lecture theatre on campus and watched eurovision on the big screen.
On the evening of our last exam, a number of us travelled up the gondala to the observatory, where we were met with beautiful views of the West of the city. Moving between the trees further down the hill we think we saw a Golden Eagle, and shortly afterwards an incredible sunset. The next evening, having had a closing ceremony and officially finished our course, all of us, besides a couple that had already headed away, met in one of the kitchens and had a very fun party to celebrate the semester and say goodbye to each other!
While some of the friendships I made have already faded, there are a few that I am still regularly in contact with and will certainly meet with again in the future.
Uni Social Life
The student population is very international, with many Spanish and Italian students in particular. The Student’s Union often has themed parties run by different groups. As well as typical society events, like rugby (the main sport of Toulouse, alongside cycling), different nationalities hosted their own nights, with typical cuisine, drinks, decorations and sometimes performances. Some that happened whilst I was there were Indian, Portugese and Lebanese. There was also a smurfs-themed night.
There were lots of clubs and societies that you could be a part of, particularly for the size of the student population*. Not many of the other students took part, as there was a cost each to join the sports, arts and social associations. I joined the sport’s association so that I could do lead climbing on their wall, as well as joining a few volleyball lessons. Since we were a bit secluded from the rest of the uni by being on our own course, this was a nice opportunity for me to meet some of the other students, and to get some more french practise! As well as a climbing wall, there’s also a sport’s hall, volleyball, tennis and basketball courts, rugby and football pitches, indoor and outdoor gyms, and a swimming pool on site. Other facilities were a number of barbecque spaces, and music and study rooms upstairs in the MDE, the student’s union building.
* You should be able to see them here: https://www.isae-supaero.fr/en/campus-life/student-associations-and-clubs/
If you manage to stay on top of your work, you have plenty of time on the weekends to be able to travel. With good rail networks, it’s very easy to travel to a number of nearby cities. Looking back I would have liked to have made better use of this at the start of the semester, but I did still manage to get to a few places. One of the places I visited was Carcasonne, with a number of churches and cathedrals, art museums and the famed castle, for which the eponymous game is based upon. It was a really beautiful city.
I also went hiking a couple of times in both the French and Spanish Pyrenees. These were fantastic trips and a great break away from work.
With the semester split up by 3 week long holidays, there’s opportunity to travel further afield as well.
In the first holiday I travelled with three others through Spain and Portugal, visiting Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon and Porto. Despite moving at quite a fast rate, we did a good job of exploring most of each city. It’s a bit of a hassle to get to by public transport, but the Caba da Roca by Lisbon is an amazing place to visit! There is also the nearby Sintra castle, which looked stunning from a distance but I unfortunately didn’t make it to.
You can make good use of the EU student visa to get discounts, or even free entry, on many tourist attractions!
Getting on the placement
You may be wondering what the process was like to apply for the Placement. To begin with, we were invited to presentations at the start of December in 2nd Year. Here they told us how the placements work and the different options available to us, and students that had previously completed semesters abroad spoke to us about their experiences.
A couple of months later we had to submit our applications. You could apply for one or multiple of the available choices. In the applications we had to say which modules we would be taking, show we had calculated our costs and would have sufficient funds for the period, and to write about why we wanted to do the semester abroads we had chosen.
We had to pick our modules for both the semester abroad and for Southampton in year’s 3 and 4 to ensure we would complete the required modules, or equivalents. Don’t worry, though, it’s not set in stone at this stage and you can change later so long as it’d still meet requirements.
At the same time, we filled out a risk assessments form. This was simple and was mostly a case of removing unnecessary sections from the provided example.
If you are successful at this stage, which most applicants will be, it means that the University will nominate you to the foreign university and support your application. This is required to apply to the university as a student of Southampton. You could choose to take a semester, or year, out from Southampton University and apply for the semester abroad individually, but you then wouldn’t benefit from the University’s partnership with the foreign university, and would have to pay the foreign student fees yourself.
After nomination, the last stage is an application directly to the foreign university. For SUPAERO, this consisted of a cover letter, where you could say why you wanted to study there and how you thought you would benefit from the semester abroad. You should still try to create a well-written piece, but once you have a nomination from Southampton this stage is primarily a formality so don’t stress yourself out too much.
Assuming they accept you onto the placement course, you can then begin applying for VISAs, accommodation and the grants available with Southampton University.
I really loved my time abroad. It gave me unique opportunity to massively improve my French, I made great new friends, had incredible experiences and a chance to try a different way of teaching from what I was used to at Southampton. I think that the change in environment and teaching was really beneficial to me, and gave me some respite from what had become overly familiar. The ease with which to access the canal and enjoy time outside on walks and runs was a nice change from the more built up parts of Southampton I’d mainly been in before with just the central common nearby.
I was really happy to have so many new experiences to stimulate me and to adapt to. A little cliché, but I do think I’ve changed and improved myself a lot as a person from my time there, getting to know myself better.
It wasn’t all ups, with not being so happy with a couple of the modules, among other things, and I’ll admit that after the exams at the end I was happy to be heading home for the holidays. It was also hard sorting out the administration whilst trying to do the dissertation and apply to IPY’s in first semester. However, I overall did love it and would do it again if I could. I would fully recommend you to apply for a semester abroad at SUPAERO, or any of the other options.