In the first semester of my junior year, I became a teaching assistant in the POD, a renovated space created to house the new freshman design course at Duke. The course was launched in an effort to give freshman engineers an opportunity to gain hands-on experience and to learn about the engineering design process.
Engineering is about solving problems. Many of these problems can be very technical in nature and solving them requires a foundation in principles garnered in core math, science, and coding classes. These fundamental courses provide the building blocks needed to solve complex and interesting problems. Because of this, most engineering schools choose to equip students with these fundamentals before allowing them to tackle any real engineering challenges.
Unfortunately, the standard engineering curriculum that most colleges adopt disillusions young engineers. Ambitious freshman engineers dream about building a better future, but their classes do not reflect what it means to be an engineer. Swamped with highly competitive math and science weed-out courses, many students are discouraged from continuing their engineering majors. Further, women and students of minority backgrounds are disproportionally afflicted by this spell. Only when engineers become seniors and are enrolled in capstone design courses are they given the opportunity to finally see the light, and get to work on real engineering problems.
Fortunately, the new freshman design course is created to combat the limitations in Duke’s engineering curriculum. In their first year at Duke, freshman work in interdisciplinary teams to solve real problems affecting people in the local community. The two professors of this course, Dr. Saterbak and Dr. Santillan, have done an incredible job of teaching young students of all backgrounds what it really means to be an engineer. When eager parents badger their freshman child about the exciting things they are learning at Duke at the Thanksgiving table, students will have something great to talk about.
My Role as a Teaching Assistant
My position is very different from most teaching assistants in that I have no grading responsibilities. Instead, I am responsible for managing/supervising several project teams. As an upperclassman with design experience, I am a valuable resource to the freshman in many capacities. While I am not doing the projects for the students, I am with them every step of the way. I support the students with guidance on how to effectively complete each step of the design process, and I provide the teams with feedback and help make sure they meet their deadlines. As a project manager, I also focus on improving the group dynamics and making sure that all students are engaged and productive. Lastly, since this course is new at Duke, I collaborate with the class professors and other TA’s to give bigger picture feedback on the course structure in order to improve the class in future semesters. I have loved serving as a TA and will continue working in the POD for the rest of my time at Duke.
Working as a teaching assistant in the POD has helped me grow in many ways. I have improved my communication abilities and I have learned how to be a successful teammate and leader. Additionally, the skills I have honed in the POD have been readily transferrable in all of my other pursuits.
Bad Teammates: There is often at least one person on every school group project who is demotivated, unproductive, and would be considered by most to be a “bad teammate.” This course changed the way that I view these teammates. Rather than complaining about these kinds of people, I ask myself what I am doing wrong as a leader. Everyone has talents and interests, and as a leader it is one of my jobs to figure out what these skills are and how I can get the most out of my teammates. I used to put my head down and do the work myself, but now I spend a lot of time coordinating team efforts in order to maximize the productivity of the team as a whole. At Duke, every student has something to offer, and more often than not, it is bad leaders who allow for “bad teammates.”
Perfectionism: I have always considered myself a perfectionist. While perfection is impossible I pride myself on always producing quality work. This course reinforced the lean startup mentality and taught me that the best route to success is through a series of failures. Rather than slowly inching towards the “perfect” solution, you are much better off rapidly prototyping and incrementally improving and pivoting your design. I was able to see first hand that the teams who were able to cycle through this iteration process quickly were the most successful. I now realize that I can still be a perfectionist, but I now seek perfection through a whole new avenue.
Diversity isn’t charity: Diversity has become somewhat of a buzzword, and it unfortunately is sometimes branded as a charitable way to help underrepresented groups. In reality, diversity is the key in making a team dynamic. In these five person design teams, individual capabilities are less important than the collective capability of a team.
The Venn diagram looking figures below have circles representing the capabilities of an individual. These capabilities could be interpersonal skills, coding abilities, or a variety of other skills. The blobs on the right illustrate the combined capabilities of a team. The larger this blob is, the more things a team is able to accomplish. Too often, people seek the most successful individuals, those with the biggest circles, without considering the team as a whole. The first image shows a poorly formed team in which the team members are lacking in diversity. While each of their circles are fairly large, there is a lot of overlap making each individual not add a lot to the rest of the group. In contrast, the second figure is a very dynamic team with a wide range of capabilities. While Sarah may not be very impressive on her own due to her small circle, this figure illustrates how she is adding a lot to the group.
Importance of Management: Certainly I have always known that leadership is important, but this course has taught me how valuable a successful manager can be. When working on a project, it is easy to get caught up in one’s own personal contribution that one forgets what is best for the team as a whole. My role as a TA in the POD is very special in that I am not doing any of the physical work myself, and I can focus my whole attention on group dynamics and the performance of the team as a whole. Rather than trying to do as much individual work as I can, I now focus on how I can maximize the productivity of the entire group. In my other classes I am a lot more intentional about focusing on the success of the team, and I have found that it reduces the burden on myself and improves the overall quality of my projects.
The Other Side: In any venture, understanding the perspective of the people you interact with will make you more successful. Working with professors and being on the other end of grading has given me insights that have made me a better student. Whenever possible I do my best to understand the position of the people I am collaborating with. I believe this ability to see the perspective of the other side is very valuable in all scenarios. In order to be a good interview candidate, it helps to spend time as an interviewer. In order to be a good employee, it helps to understand what it is like to be a boss. While it is not always practical to gain experience on the “other side” it is always worth considering the other perspective. In order to achieve what you want, you must understand what the person you are talking to wants.
Artifact: Feeding System at the Duke Lemur Center
In my first semester working in the POD, one of my project teams was tasked with creating an adaptive feeding system for the Duke Lemur Center, the world’s largest and most diverse collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar. Lemurs are the most endangered mammal on the planet, and as the populations dwindle in Madagascar, the role of the Duke Lemur Center is becoming ever more important. Given that the lemurs are studied for research, the Lemur Center takes every effort to preserve natural behavior amongst the lemurs and to not domesticate the endangered creatures.
Unfortunately, the current method of feeding the lemurs is by placing food in baskets a few feet off the ground. In the wild, lemurs spend most of the day foraging for food and seldom visit the ground. The freshman design group was tasked with overhauling the feeding system to allow the lemurs to feed 20-25 feet above the ground, to more accurately mimic behavior in the wild.
The freshman design team was very dynamic and excited about the project, and they effectively navigated the design process. After many weeks of brainstorming, prototyping, and iterating on their design, the team built a high fidelity solution that was nearly ready to be installed at the Lemur Center by the end of the semester.
The final design solution features a pulley system powered by a winch that is used to hoist food high into trees. The biggest challenge that the team faced was to create a system that was effective while not posing any safety hazards to the fragile lemurs. In the second semester of the project, one of the most influential team members, Trevor Fowler, worked with experts at the Lemur Center to finalize the design and pass safety inspections. Below is a picture of the final design implemented at the Lemur Center and the team is hopeful that the feeding system will be officially put to use in the near future.