As an engineering student, group projects are a crucial part of the engineering curriculums. Collaboration and teamwork are major components to problem solving, the main job of an engineer. As such, I should have anticipated some sort of engineering group project assignment in one of my mechanical engineering classes at the University of Glasgow.
The first group project assignment
During the registration period, I enrolled in the course Aircraft Design to learn aspects of design that I could utilize back at my home university with my senior year design project. The first day of class, we were surprised with a group project assignment to design an aerofoil. The instructor stated that the goal was to optimize the cross section of an airplane wing, known in the United Kingdom as an aerofoil, to achieve maximum lift, a property that allows planes to fly. Examples were given from past classes as well as three websites for simulation and design. Besides a basic syllabus uploaded to the course’s Moodle page, not much more guidance was given, although to the other students in the class this seemed normal.
When initially given the group project, I was very anxious as to how the project would play out. Usually at my home university, I do group projects with other friends whose working styles I understand. However, I was nervous about working with five other students who I did not know well and have never worked with before. Talking to the other exchange students in the class, I discovered they felt the same. I even felt somewhat powerless in regards to the team planning and work, since I am still learning about the engineering process in Scotland. Regardless, I decided to go into the group project with an open mind and try to learn something from the experience.
Working with an international group
The course instructor purposefully assigned groups so that study abroad students would be intermingled with full time students studying at Glasgow. This was a great idea because if all the students who participated in the IFSA program were in one group, we would likely have no idea what we were doing. Meeting my group of five others was interesting since not all of the students were from the same place. Two students were from Scotland, one living on a rhubarb farm, and the three others were from Spain. As full-time students at the university, they all knew what to do.
During the first meeting, we hopped into planning our project and discussing our previous research, which was normal to me. However, I found out quite quickly that most of the group work would have to be done on each person’s time because of all of our differing schedules. Dividing up the work helped to create some familiar organization in the group. Talking with my team also taught me that there are a lot of differences in knowledge gained from past courses. Most of my knowledge related to the project was based on hands-on teaching, whereas their aerofoil experience pertained mostly to theory. While I first thought this to be disadvantageous, I realized my experience with experimenting and real-world applications gave me an advantageous edge to the project. I contributed the knowledge I had to improve our design, and hopefully the result will reflect my past experience and be successful. It has been fascinating to learn about how students from different countries approach group projects.
One of the mechanical engineering students who participated in the IFSA program named Serena also had some thoughts regarding this group project experience. She said that she is so glad she “got the opportunity to work in groups on projects with other Glasgow students. It has been difficult adjusting to a new style of teaching for [her] engineering courses, but the students in [her] group have shared a lot of their experience.” In her opinion, learning from other students while abroad is a major beneficial part of the study abroad experience.
Overcoming communication challenges
Naturally with group projects, there were some road blocks in communication that occurred. Most of my struggle with communication has been because of my lack of common Glasgow engineering student knowhow. For example, the first day we were to work on the design, one member of the team messaged to meet in a certain building described by an unfamiliar acronym. I had to learn how to use the new software required for the project as well as the descriptive words used by my group to communicate my new ideas. This group project has felt like somewhat of a struggle as a student who does not have a three-year background working with the other team members in class, but it has been enlightening to learn about their work methods and their stories as engineering students. After meeting with the team multiple times, the anxiety I initially had has dissipated, and now I am just excited to see the results of our design!
As a possible future engineer, I anticipate having to work with people from all over the world. At this stage in the project, I am truly grateful to learn how to communicate and work as a team with people from different backgrounds. Even better, I now have more friends in the engineering program to help navigate my classes, future engineering group projects, and the Scottish academic system.
Sophia Moak is a mechanical engineering major at Vanderbilt University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland in spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.