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Working in Teams

October 17, 2009

At Olin, we spend a lot of time working in teams. In fact, I don’t think a single semester has gone by without my being involved in an intense group project (and that’s not even counting all of the stuff I do with the Human Powered Vehicle Team).

Interestingly, this semester it just happened to work out that I’ve been working on all-female teams:

1. In Sustainable Design, I’m working on redesigning a breast pump with two other women in my class. We filled out a survey in the beginning of the project listing three products that we would be interested in redesigning. Not yet knowing that the project was on electronic consumer products, three of us put down tampons as a product with a serious environmental impact that we would be interested in focusing on. Having been grouped based on our desire to work on a woman-centered product with both technical and social aspects, we eventually  settled on redesigning breast pumps. It’s been a great experience so far – I love my team members (which is what ends up really mattering)  and we went on some fun field-trips while brainstorming what product to focus on (we went to Good Vibrations in Brookline).

Maybe I’m missing the obvious, but it often seems like there is so much technology designed for women that is completely shitty. Breast pumps (for example) are noisy, messy, isolating, uncomfortable, and awkward to carry around and use. There’s no convenient place to use a breast pump in public, yet one of the purposes of a breast pump is to maintain milk production while not with your baby (when you would probably be in a public venue such as work or a conference). To make matters worse, pumps are ridiculously expensive (costing hundreds of dollars) and can’t be shared due to a risk of “milk spores” contamination. The technology for a pump that can be shared (aka hospital-grade) costs thousands of dollars. Other examples: mammograms, tampon applicators etc.

2. In SCOPE (Senior Capstone Project in Engineering), I happen to be on the only all-female team. I’m working with four other women on a radar project for Raytheon. This project is building on the work of last year’s team, which happened to be all male. We joke a lot about how funny the gender ratios are in SCOPE, plus we now all have matching pink sweatshirts.

I love that it’s possible to be on all-female teams at Olin. I especially love being on kick-ass all-female teams. I feel like this wouldn’t be possible at other schools (not counting Smith, obvs).

When I think back about my team experiences, I think the best ones have been when everyone felt that they could be honest about what they were getting out of the experience and what they needed to improve it. My sophomore year, I worked with three of my best friends on a graffiti plotter for Principles of Engineering. After our first design review, we had a team meeting. Among many things, we talked about how the electrical/software side of the project wasn’t as far along as we wanted it to be and decided that we needed to change how we structured the team to fix that. We quickly reorganized tasks and found that our progress improved significantly afterward. If I hadn’t already been really close with those people, I’m not sure that we would have been able to so easily evaluate our progress and decide to make changes.

Similarly, the Human Powered Vehicle Team, has always felt like a place where I could explore my interests and have my voice be heard. I learned how to weld for that project and it sparked my initial interest in machining. Now, I work in the machine shop (second woman to be employed in the short history of the Olin machine shop) and absolutely love it. While I have never been as enthusiastic about the design/analysis part as the manufacturing part, I often feel like I’ve learned more from being on the HPV team for the past 3 years than from any of my engineering classes.

In all of my research, I’ve read numerous sources that cite engineering students as poor team workers. Obviously I’m biased, but it seems like that’s missing the best part of an engineering education. I love being able to bounce ideas off other people, have my peers critique my work (as one of my friends did last week when she saw my pitiful excuse for a technical drawing. As she explained “it’s so obvious you didn’t take Design for Manufacturing …”) and learn by working with a more experienced person.

Particularly as a female student, I feel like I have benefited massively from the team environment at Olin. It’s given me the confidence to try things, knowing that I have team members to help me in case it doesn’t work. It’s incredibly motivating to have other people to work with. Honestly, it just makes it more fun.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 03:12

    I like that you say that teams have given you more confidence. It made me reflect a little — I’ve been on several design teams and a few research teams, but in the particular classes I’ve been in I can only recall being on one post-first-year team that was actually working on an engineering challenge. That experience was so valuable (and impressive!) it’s listed on my resume alongside my REU’s. I was working with three women; they taught me a fair bit of what I know about tissue culture… I was definitely a “junior” member of the group and learned a lot from it.

    Maybe I accidentally cheated myself out of one of the best parts of Olin.

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