How to work effectively when your team is both global and virtual

Solar Ship

A steel-tethered airship, known as an aerostat, designed by Solar Ship, Inc. The company is one of several clients whose projects are facilitated by U of T Engineering’s International Virtual Engineering Student Teams (InVEST) initiative. (Photo: Solar Ship, Inc.)

Last January, U of T Engineering launched a new program focused on using online collaboration tools to build effective, multidisciplinary design teams with members all over the world. Its creators could not have known how timely their efforts were.

“Prior to the pandemic, utilizing virtual-international teams was seen as a time and cost-saving approach to harness talent and maximize efficiency,” says Professor Elham Marzi (ISTEP). “In the present state, we are seeing organizations left with little choice but to embrace virtual-international teams as the best way forward.”

There are signs that the shift online caused by COVID-19 may continue even after the virus subsides. Already, major technology companies such as Twitter, Shopify and Facebook have told their employees that they can keep telecommuting indefinitely.

“This is the new global reality our graduates need to prepare for,” says Marzi.

The International Virtual Engineering Student Teams (InVEST) initiative facilitates virtual and cross-cultural collaboration by connecting U of T Engineering students with their peers at partner universities abroad.

Student teams undertake technical projects under the supervision of faculty members at partner universities. They also participate in value-added learning activities on technology use, effective teamwork and intercultural communication and understanding.

Together, these international, multidisciplinary teams complete design projects, sometimes for an external client, using a suite of software tools to communicate and track their progress.

InVEST is delivered by a team that includes:

  • Professor Elham Marzi (ISTEP), InVEST Director & Principal Investigator
  • Rahim Rezaie, InVEST Assistant Director
  • Debbie A. Mohammed, University & Industry Liaison
  • Anuli Ndubuisi (OISE), Research and Program Manager
  • Oluwatobi (Tobi) Edun, Operations & Research Manager
  • Patrick Ishimwe, Website & Social Media Developer

“Some of our students already travel abroad at some point in their degree programs,” says Rezaie. “But travel is expensive, and the students usually can’t stay away for more than a few weeks. Virtual collaboration offers a more scalable way for the university to enhance international experience for graduates.”

InVEST, which is supported by the Dean’s Strategic Fund, was designed to be compatible with existing experiential learning activities, such as fourth-year capstones courses, MEng research projects, or independent project courses.

However, at the request of U of T’s Centre for International Experience, the team has added a number of summer research exchanges that were moved online due to travel restrictions.

“What this program provides is the ability to have eyes and ears in more than one country,” says Edun. “This leads to a bigger and more diverse set of ideas around the table, and a richer experience for everyone involved.”

Jeff Mukuka (Year 4 CivE) is one of the participants. His project is a design exchange internship with Solar Ship, Inc., a company that designs tethered and mobile airships, known as aerostats, for applications ranging from tourism to freight transportation.

“Through InVEST, I’ve had the privilege of working with people from many countries, including the U.S., U.A.E., Nepal and Zambia,” says Mukuka. “The experience working with such a diverse team was transformational and I have made many lifelong friends.”

In addition to their design work, students in InVEST engage with educational modules that help them address some of the issues that come up during extended online collaboration.

“These days, we’re all learning that Zoom etiquette is important, that we need to be respectful when having a meeting that essentially lets your co-workers inside your home,” says Marzi. “That’s true whether you’re in Ecuador, Canada or Africa, but how it is perceived may vary from place to place, so we’re getting the students to think through that.”

InVEST Session

Students and staff from three InVEST projects participating in an intercultural learning session held July 16, 2020. Left to right, top to bottom: Tobi Edun, Professor Elham Marzi, Anuli Ndubuisi, Malama, Laura Williams, Mohamed Mbarouk, Matt Jagdeo, Sampanna Bhattarai, Chao Wang, Maryam Naqi, Rayni Li, Ali Khan, Carlos Qixiao, Jenny Li. (Photo courtesy Elham Marzi)

 

“I learned a lot from the modules: intercultural communication skills, group conflict resolution, and how to use software tools for virtual collaboration,” says Mukuka. “The skills I have acquired are invaluable, especially now that the future is projected to have more remote work even after COVID-19 ends.”

Mukuka’s project is one of four completed over the last several months, with others ongoing, involving a total of 24 students. These include 13 students from partner universities such as University of Johannesburg in South Africa, and the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

Heading into the fall semester, the team will expand the program with more projects.

“We are in contact with more than fifteen universities around the world at the moment,” says Edun. “Some of the projects I’m excited about for the fall include one about biogas production, in partnership with Covenant University in Nigeria, as well as one about making power grids more resilient to lightning strikes, with Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais.”

All members of the InVEST team agree that while online collaboration across cultures was already emerging as a critical skill for engineering graduates, the current situation has accelerated the trend.

“When we started out, we heard from partners that online collaboration would be complicated and cumbersome,” says Rezaie. “Our goal was to de-risk this approach, to show people that there was value in this kind of engagement. That value proposition has become a lot clearer over the past few months, which has led to much more interest.”

Visit the InVEST website to learn more about the program.

Article by Tyler Irving originally posted at U of T Engineering News. August 20, 2020.