Team Work

DSC_0303“Team work. Team work. Team work.”  “Students need to know how to work in teams.”  “Working with other people of a diverse background is as important as knowing your discipline.” “I’ve never fired an engineer for incompetence; I’ve only fired engineers because they couldn’t work with others.”  These are all statements that I’ve heard from industry partners, former students now working in corporate America, and friends in similar positions.

Teamwork is a cornerstone of Introduction to Engineering Design, a Ways of Knowing course for SMU’s new University Curriculum.  The course is a project based learning experience for first-year engineering students where the students work in multidisciplinary teams to build autonomous robots that can traverse a playing field to find a water basin.  Once found, the robots have to test the water for pH, temperature, and turbidity, and then remediate the pH of the water.  Completing a robot of this complexity is no small feat for first-year students.

We’ve done many things over the years to help the teams be more effective, procrastinate less, and achieve more technical success.  However, it is rarely the technical competence of the team members that stands in the way of that success.  More often, it is the lack of experience concerning how to work effectively on teams that has caused the most problems.  Teams would encounter typical problems such as the “slacker syndrome” where a few members leave all of the work to the others.

Recently, with the help of the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership in the Lyle School in consultation with the Center for Creative Leadership, we modeled the rhythm of the class and project based on a software project management framework called Scrum .  Scrum is an iterative development framework that focuses not only on the “thing” being developed but on the team functionality.  While not adopting each and every aspect of Scrum, we use several important parts that make sense for this type of project.  Each iteration or “sprint” is approximately 3 weeks long.  Class meetings (and hopefully other team meetings) begin with a “stand-up”.  In a stand-up, students actually stand (hiding your cell phone in your lap is challenging when your standing up), and each member of the team answers three questions to the other team members:

  1. What have I done since the last meeting?
  2. What do I intend to complete before the next meeting?
  3. What is blocking me?

Each sprint ends with some sort of major deliverable (a presentation, a robot demonstration, etc.)  One of the most important parts of Scrum, though, is the team retrospective.  After the technical deliverable, the teams adjourn to another room where they spend time with a team facilitator discussing how their team is functioning, how to become a more productive team, and what the team should start, stop, and continue doing to aid in its future success.

We are now in our third semester using this framework for the course.  We are seeing significant improvements in the technical success of the teams due in part to the incremental deliverables.  Much of the increased success of the teams is due to the fact that they are truly learning to work together, rely on one another, and resolve their problems in a mature fashion.

Have you tried any particular project methodology from industry to manage projects and teams in your classes?  If so, please post in the comments section.  In future posts, I’ll expand on the various aspects of the Scrum methodology, more detail about how we have implemented it, and thoughts moving forward.

About Mark Fontenot

School of Engineering
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One Response to Team Work

  1. Tom Mayo says:

    There probably aren’t too many disciplines that don’t depend upon teamwork to get things done in the real world. This sounds like a really good approach to explicitly addressing the needs of effective teamwork. I incorporate teamwork-oriented tasks in my Nonprofit Organizations class (drafting articles of incorporation/certificates of formation, bylaws, conflict of interest policies, and applications for recognition of tax-exempt status), but I really haven’t added to the mix anything explicit about the factors that inhibit or foster effective teamwork.

    The same goes for my Law, Literature, and Medicine class, where the teams consist of one 4th-year med student and one 3rd-year law student. There, where there is really no place to hide, the teamwork requirements are — or ought to be — pretty obvious. Yet some teams are wildly more or less successful than others, and it would probably be a good thing if the teamwork element were addressed explicitly at some point after the first week, at least if it could be done so that it didn’t require one student to be seen as pointing a finger at their partner for that last reading/discussion session.

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