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U of T Engineering's virtual, global collaboration program hits its stride during COVID-19

An airship designed by Solar Ship Inc., a company that worked with fourth-year U of T Engineering student Jeff Mukuka through a design exchange internship (photo courtesy of Solar Ship)

Students at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering launched a program last January that focused on using online collaboration tools to build effective, multidisciplinary design teams with members all over the world.

They could not have known how timely their efforts would be.

“Prior to the pandemic, utilizing virtual international teams was seen as a time- and cost- saving approach to harness talent and maximize efficiency,” says Elham Marzi, an assistant professor, teaching stream in the Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering Education & Practice (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,” Marzi says.

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

Student teams undertake technical projects under the supervision of faculty members at the partner universities. They learn about technology use, effective teamwork and intercultural communication and understanding.

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

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

InVEST is delivered by a team that includes:

  • Elham Marzi (ISTEP), InVEST director and principal investigator
  • Rahim Rezaie, InVEST assistant director
  • Debbie A. Mohammed, university and industry liaison
  • Anuli Ndubuisi (OISE), research and program manager
  • Oluwatobi (Tobi) Edun, operations and research manager
  • Patrick Ishimwe, website and 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, including fourth-year capstones courses, Master of Engineering 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, a fourth-year civil engineering student, 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 and that we need to be respectful when having a meeting that essentially lets your co-workers inside your home,” says Marzi, adding that, while this is the case regardless of which country you’re in, “how it is perceived may vary from place to place, so we’re getting the students to think through that.”

“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 – others are 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 15 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.”

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