October 21, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Keep Project Teams on Campus

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I recently read the Guest Room column “Why We Need to Ban Project Teams” and would like to share my experience on a project team, as I feel this article uses one perspective to generalize all project teams. As a disclaimer, I do not know the details of how other project teams function, and can only vouch for my own project team, Cornell Hyperloop. However, I am a strong believer that if what Varun Belur ’19 says is true of even most project teams, that we can change this toxic environment for incoming new recruits, we can and should take steps to remedy this rather than overhaul the entire project team program. Both as a woman in a STEM field and as a student who went through severe depression and anxiety problems in the last year, it is my experience that in the right environment, project teams actually very much encourage the growth of students and their skills.

I am currently the suspension subteam lead of Cornell Hyperloop and our project team just recently finished our second round of recruitment. Recruitment is hard and heavy on us team members, especially now with two recruitment rounds in the fall semester. We got over 40 upperclassmen applications and nearly 90 freshman applications. To older, more established teams, this probably isn’t a lot, but we do look over these applications very carefully. One of the reason we don’t get as many applications is because we are not just a resume drop. We ask questions such as “Name a project you have worked on where you experienced failure. How did you handle this?” Questions like these are not for us to judge applicants based on previous experience but rather, to determine whether this person has worked in a team before, whether they know how to handle unexpected problems, and many basic skills that not only tests your ability on a project team, but applies to situations that anyone could experience.

I recognize I am only a second semester junior, and with my limited knowledge I am definitely not qualified to judge anybody on their technical skills. So I don’t. I share the applications of candidates with my subteam and ask them to give me notes because ultimately, they are the ones working with our new recruits. What my subteam and I look for in an applicant is not their technical experience, or GPA, but their passion and drive for our team goals and the willingness to put in the work needed to help us get there. I am looking for excited individuals, who don’t care about just getting the answer, but want to know they “why” and “how” behind it. We ask every applicant, “Why Hyperloop?”, not just because we want to see passion to the team itself, but to the idea of the Hyperloop, to see them share the curiosity we have about this innovative technology.

We have evaluations at the middle and end of semesters not only as feedback to our subteam members, but anonymous surveys where members are allowed to give feedback to leads. I, as well as my fellow subteam leads on Hyperloop, take these very seriously because we want to make our project team setting enjoyable for everyone. One of the biggest challenges we are working on this semester is the social aspect of our team. We are working to create non-alcoholic socials for our team to increase camaraderie among different subteams, and get to know our members outside a work setting.

Again, this is only my experience with Cornell Hyperloop. We too faced many of the same problems stated in Belur’s column in our first year at Cornell, but we have worked to fix these problems and I really believe if these problems exist in other subteams, there are steps that can be taken to make them healthier environments.

As a woman in STEM, I have found that I am definitely in the minority on my team. It even went hand in hand with my mental health as I felt my self-confidence deteriorate over time, when I didn’t know how to approach some of the tasks assigned to me and I started to correlate my lack of experience with being a girl. After a semester away from college, I was able to find myself and recognized that it’s ok if your first through is “I don’t know”. What matters is your ability to follow up with, “How can I learn about this?”

I encourage females to get involved in any male-dominated field, because I get it, it’s intimidating, but with the right encouragement and help, you will achieve so much more than you thought you could. Without being on a project team, I would not be able to do the 3D modeling, the machining, the design work and so many other skills that I did not learn in classes, but learned from hands-on experience, dedication, and hard work. I learned how to communicate on a team, how to work with other personalities, how to lead when you don’t know the next step yourself. Project teams are so important for students to gain the real-life experience that industries after college expect you to have.

With all that, I would like to end with a plea not to consider banning project teams for the toxic environment they can foster, but rather to work to change that environment, so that is conducive to the learning and passion we are all ultimately here for.

Keya Gangadharan is a junior in the College of Engineering. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to [email protected].