I am in Adelaide, Australia this week participating in International Space University’s ‘Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program’ (quite a mouthful!). SH-SSP is a fast-paced, five-week academic experience for senior undergraduates, grad students and young professionals from southern hemisphere nations. The Program curriculum covers the multidisciplinary aspects of space exploration and development. This year’s participants include 31 students who come from 10 nations and represent a variety of technical and non-technical backgrounds.
In addition to core lectures and hands-on workshops, an important part of the SH-SSP academic experience is a team project on a topic of current interest to the space community. All of the SH-SSP students will work together on an innovative study, culminating in the authoring of a substantial report suitable for presentation to international space agencies and at professional conferences.
This year’s team project will tackle two complex and multifaceted problems: fresh water scarcity and food insecurity. The students will consider how the world can provide sufficient food and water to support its increasing population. In particular, they will consider how space technologies can contribute to the solution.
I was pleased to see that during this first week of their Program, the SH-SSP students were already meeting to discuss team dynamics and process. Before diving into the nuts-and-bolts of the water and food issues, they met to discuss how they will work together. They realized that to succeed on such an ambitious project with a tight timeline, they would need to be well organized and have effective work processes and smooth relations. How admirable!
Early discussion about work processes is a good idea for any organization or team embarking on a new initiative. Given their varied backgrounds as well as wide range of language fluency, the SH-SSP students are particularly wise to discuss this up front. During one of their work process meetings, they identified some of the issues to keep in mind as they begin to work together. I was impressed with their insights and captured their thoughts with my smartphone camera:
The identified issue that resonated the most with me was ‘active participation’. To me, active participation means that the technical competence of a team is not enough. Valued team members must also be engaged with the vision of the project and actively support the objectives. They don’t passively wait like robots to be assigned a task.
I once heard a story about John F. Kennedy that nicely captures this notion of active participation. Several decades ago while touring a NASA space center, President Kennedy noticed a man mopping the floor. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do here?” Expecting the man to say that he was the janitor, President Kennedy was delighted when the man replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” What a great response! To most people, this man was just cleaning the building. But this janitor well understood NASA’s big picture and was personally and totally engaged with JFK’s vision to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth.
This story about JFK and the janitor may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it well illustrates the level of understanding and commitment that is required of the team. Each member actively supports the team in whatever way necessary to achieve the mission objectives. Teamwork means taking initiative and demonstrating trust, reliability and responsibility. Teamwork is not simply following the leader’s direction – it is proactive.
Over the next four weeks the SH-SSP’16 students will have opportunities to exercise their imagination and develop project management skills. They will learn how to reach solutions in an interdisciplinary, international and intercultural setting where conflicting approaches will emerge and compromises must be made.
I will return to Canada early next week. I wish the SH-SSP students success as they address food and water security issues in the developing world. It is a noble endeavour.