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I'm heading a group of engineering students (from different fields) which need to build a robot (which performs tasks autonomously) as part of their courses.

There are 10 students in this group and they are divided in three or four subgroups which work on different engineering aspects. As the time frame is pretty short (2.5 months) and the students have a lot of other things to tend to, I wanted to optimize their work a bit by using some tools for project management and communication.

As I have recently been around a lot of IT people, I got to know about some of the methods and tools they use in the organization of small to medium-ish sized(startup) companies. So my question boils down to:

Is it advisable to manage short term - medium/high workload student projects using productivity and management tools(e.g. Slack?) and techniques, or could this actually be of little use to the project(especially if the supervisor has no experience using them)?

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  • There is a reason why use such tools are used by the industry, and it is to let everyone know when one has to do what. So I think it is a very good idea.
    – prmottajr
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 14:14
  • I suggest Trello or equivalents to my students for their project's task management. They then choose if they want to use it and how. For communication, I'm not fond of adding yet another medium when they already have many sources of input (internal messaging, pro/perso email, diff. IM systems, ...)
    – Clef.
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 8:42

2 Answers 2

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Yes, but don't overdo it.

Using one or two services such as Slack (the one I have the most personal experience with) can be really helpful in the sense that it can facilitate and organize communication. It's easy to share files, and to collaborate and make progress even when everyone can't be in the same place at the same time (an issue with busy students). It's also good to have some kind of central communication system, where any and all meeting times and information are announced, such as goals, deadlines, progress reports, etc.

However, for it to work, everyone has to be fully aware of 1) what service(s) the team is using 2) how to sign up for and access the service (Does it have an app? Does it send alerts? Emails?) and 3) what is expected from them in terms of the service (How often are team members expected to check it? What are they supposed to report on?). Make sure that if you decide to use some service, that you have a meeting where every member of the team gets together, signs up for the service, configures anything necessary, and discusses expectations. If everyone isn't on the same page, then you're not really going to see any benefit from using it.

Also, limit yourself when choosing your tools. There's a lot of cool team management software, and organization tools out there, but for a 2.5 month project, you probably only need one or two that are most essential to the tasks at hand. Make sure that you have some tool for communication, because effective communication between busy team members is what will ultimately keep the project on track.

If you use a tool for a week and find that it's either hindering productivity or not increasing it, then either choose a different one to replace it or just scrap it totally. Don't persist in using something that isn't helping.

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I think this is potentially a good idea for two main reasons: (1) the tools are likely to be helpful for project management in their own right (which is why they are used in industry); and (2) in addition to learning engineering, the students get some practice using project management systems they will encounter in subsequent professional work.

As with any new tool, there is an initial time-cost to learning to use it; in the case of programs like Slack, etc., you will need to allocate some time to help your team get set up with these programs and learn the basics of how to use them. If you are serious about this then I recommend allocating some of the course time and marks to successful learning and use of these project management tools (e.g., have a 5% mark allocated to project management, which is assessed on the basis of demonstrating competence in using this system). Also, as in any industrial/professional setting, you should ensure that your use of project management tools is suitable for the project and commensurate with the complexity of the project --- i.e., use these tools in a way that makes project management less complicated, not more complicated. (For the purpose of looking at trade-offs here, you can reasonably ignore the initial time-investment to learn the tools; pretend that you are all working inside an industrial firm where this set of tools is used for all projects, so that learning them is mandatory.)

Like any potentially good idea for innovative teaching, there is no guarantee it will work out. It might turn out that the time needed to learn these tools is excessive, and cuts too much into time spent on substantive engineering work. It might be too hard to assess the competence of individual team members in using the project management tools, and it might be hard to diagnose the causes when problems arise. Still, it is a good enough idea to be worth trying out --- if it is successful then it is something you could potentially build into all future student projects for these courses.

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