Parlez-vous teamwork?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

UI students learn to collaborate across cultures and time zones

Text by Jean Florman

Twenty-first century engineers must understand how to solve problems for things they cannot see. According to Dan Mineck, that is the premise underlying the College of Engineering Virtual International Project Teams course. As the course instructor, the recently retired vice president of Alliant Energy helps UI students collaborate with students halfaworld away to solve several real-world engineering problems.

Through the power of the Internet, 13 UI students and their peers at the Ecole Polytechnique Universitaire de Marseilles meet for class, tackle engineering problems collaboratively, and become friends. They are responsible for analyzing and providing solutions for real-life engineering problems posed by companies such as Caterpillar Corporation and Deere & Company, as well as by the University of Iowa Office of Facilities Management. Each student team must work with a student team from the other institution, an approach that enhances the challenge of collaborating effectively and provides a unique cross-cultural experience. Recent projects have included reducing the temperature of the fluid in a hydraulic system on a John Deere tractor and enhancing the heating and ventilation effectiveness and efficiency at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"This is a great opportunity for these students and also a lot of fun," says Mineck, who has served on the College of Engineering Advisory Board since 1996 and is its current chair. "They are involved in something important because through their projects they connect with engineering professionals at large companies and also perform a service that will improve the University."

During the 2007–2008 course, mechanical and industrial engineering students in both countries tackled three engineering problems. They and their instructors shared class sessions by videoconference on a regular basis and between the virtual classes, held additional meetings with their local peers. The videoconference allowed students not only to share data and learn in common, but also to get to know one another. Students also created a course blog, which provided a course-specific "community space" on the Internet where instructors could post assignments and, along with their students, could pose questions and offer possible solutions. By its nature, a blog encourages participants to test their intellectual mettle in a nongraded setting. All the international interactions during the course took place in English, the universal language of engineering.

Although blogging and e-mailing enable interactions across the ocean and beyond class time, videoconference sessions occurred in real time. Fortunately, time zones in Iowa City and Marseilles are compatible with course timing: The course begins at 8:00 a.m., Iowa time
which is 2:00 p.m. in France.

"Well, it is," Mineck says, "except when we change to Daylight Savings Time and they don't. We figured out why they hadn't shown up for that videoconference session, and our students were able to stay for a 9:00–10:00 class that day."

Deere & Company, Caterpillar Corporation, and private donors fund the course, including student travel to each country.

This fall will mark the eighth year the college has offered the Virtual International Project Teams course, which began when former UI President Mary Sue Coleman challenged UI colleges to internationalize their curricula. For the College of Engineering, Barry Butler—then professor of mechanical and industrial engineering—was tapped to answer the call.

"Large international companies like Boeing work around the clock and around the world," says Butler, now the college dean. "I felt it was important that we help our students become adept at using Internet tools to share data and document files, interact in real-time through videoconferencing, and work together on projects between class sessions."

Butler pitched the idea of an international course to Marc Medale, a research colleague at the polytechnic college in Marseilles.

"His university already stressed global education," Butler says, "so he didn't hesitate to sign on."

Of course, logistical challenges were inevitable, but in good engineering fashion, both students and instructors have managed to perform admirable problem solving. In the process, students have polished their cross-cultural social skills, acquired an appreciation for how engineers from different societies identify and solve problems, and gained immense confidence in their abilities to perform effectively in unfamiliar situations.

"Because the French curriculum and school year differ from ours," Mineck says, "the Iowa students had to accommodate new teams in the middle of working on projects. But the college has trained them well for teamwork, and they know how to adapt. After getting to know new team members, they leverage the diversity of the group and assign problems to those best equipped to tackle them."

During the spring semester, students from each country visit their counterparts across the ocean for a week, an experience that provides yet another rich context for their engineering education.

"Actually meeting peers with whom they have worked is not only exciting," Mineck says, "it also helps students understand that cultural differences affect how business is done."

The notion of time, for example, differs cross-culturally, and what one group may see as a firm deadline, another may consider a general concept. Students also learn how weather and national economies can affect business. When the French students visited Iowa City last February, it snowed every day for a week; during the Iowa students' visit to Marseilles, the city was experiencing a transportation strike. In both cases, students from the other country saw how the "locals" seemed to make the best of an uncomfortable situation and that, as Mineck says, "Life goes on."

He adds that Iowa engineering students are more sophisticated about the world and technology than when he was a student.

"It's a testament to them and their education that they demonstrate great confidence in their abilities to maneuver a computer, work in teams effectively, and articulate their results with precision and polish." he says. "They are not only talented, but also likable young people who will use this international experience—both virtual and real—to go on and do great things."