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1. 1. Getting Started – New Team or New Semester


When a team is beginning a new term or year or if a new team is being considered by students or faculty a number of initial tasks need to be considered.

  • First the nature of the team and its goals need to be established and related to the context of those goals, the university, the availability of a faculty advisor, space, and financial and other resources.
  • Next the team generally has to recruit (or keep) a faculty advisor and team members.
  • The financial resources must be found through outside or Cornell sources and related space and equipment needs met.
  • Next and perhaps the most the team must understand and define policies that will enable it to work safely with respect to the safety of the public, members, and property and facilities.
  • Finally in this stage, the team must then apply for official status as a student team and, as a part of this apply for space and other resources from Cornell.
    • Info on applying for team status, funding and space is outlined at:
    • Once the application process is completed, teams are required to attend a series of seminars that will help them with team administration and Cornell policies. The site also contains a matrix showing the forms required for team members:
    • Help with all of these issues can be found by visiting the Student Services office in MAE.

1. 2. Study the Context, Refine Goals

Study the Context, Refine the Team’s Goals

When a team is first formed, there are usually some basic ideas of goals already in mind. It may be to try out some new engineering concept as a control-moment-gyro-actuated robot arm or it may be to enter some established competition such as one of the SAE Baja events.

However, in order for the team to be successful the goals need to be refined. In particular the scope of what is expected to be accomplished each year must be defined to enable recruiting a faculty advisor, recruiting students to work on the team, and in order to convince the university and outside sponsors to support your team.

Inital Steps

The initial steps are an overall look at the overall goal or competition and looking at the likely abilities of the team in the coming year(s) relative to those.

  • What kind of monetary, equipment, fabrication, space, and testing resources are likely to be needed?
  • Does the team already have an interested and dedicated faculty advisor or will one have to be recruited.
  • Will it take multiple years before the overall goals can be met?
  • If so, are there intermediate goals that can be accomplished each year?
  • Is the team aiming to be a contender for an overall win in a competition or what level finishing will be defined as satisfactory?
  • What expertise will the team have to develop that is not part of the existing knowledge base of the initial team members? (E.g., composites, artificial intelligence, computational fluid mechanics, etc.)

Initial Planning

At this point, the team’s student leaders should develop an overall presentation of the teams goals and a rough plan of the resources needed and a rough work breakdown and schedule. These will be needed to convince a faculty member to advise the project, to apply for university status and space and/or funding allocations if needed. Recruiting of more members can also begin but bearing in mind that if and advisor or needed space or resources have not yet been obtained then the project may not be able to go ahead.

1. 3. Ideas for Faculty Advisors

Some Advice for Potential and Existing Team Advisors

If you are thinking about becoming or continuing as a student team advisor you will be considering both the educational advantages to students on the team (and to yourself) and the amount of time being an advisor will take. In the following I have put together some of my thoughts on the advisor roles and how to carry them out most efficiently. It is somewhat oriented toward the Cornell University FSAE and 100+ MPG teams, but I believe it is general enough to be useful for all teams.
- Al George, August, 2008

  1. I will not take on a voluntary project like this unless all the major student participants are very interested, motivated, and agreed wholeheartedly to my management plan (as outlined below).
  2. In the case of FSAE, I present the course as kind of honors level; it will be considerably more work (perhaps as much as twice) than the equivalent number of credit hours in even a tough regular elective. It is not "honors" in preparation necessari1y- in fact some people without a strong grade-point average but who are very interested, "hands-on" types, or leader/manager types with reasonable background may excel in this compared to some high GPA people. In any case we emphasize the commitment as the whole team depends on every individual as well as the whole team’s commitment to the individuals to educate and help them if they communicate their needs.
  3. My organizational scheme is as follows:
    1. I act as the “vice president of engineering”. I meet once a week for an hour to monitor the overall team progress and planning with the chief engineer (overall leader) together with the leaders of each group for about an hour. I also meet individually weekly with the team leaders to discuss more detailed technical and personnel issues. (However my time commitment is substantially greater than that, as also have ad hoc meetings to discuss some individual problems, help find information, etc.) I also hold a number of approximately six-hour-long reviews with the whole class about once a month for design reviews in which I hear reports on their individual systems and parts. (There are more reviews in the beginning of the project period and less near the end).
    2. I tell the class that decisions are final if I disagree with the chief and/or lead engineers. (In practice, I keep to insisting that they analyze their designs or alternatives to meet my concerns, which generally resolves any problems. (But in anything impacting on safety or ethics my word actually is final.)
    3. The overall leader is responsible for overall operation and coordination including assignment of people and problems to the sub-teams which are under the leaders. However decisions are always discussed in the leaders’ group meetings before decisions are made.
    4. The leaders are each in charge of specific areas and staff. (In FSAE there is typically one leader for engine and drive train, one for chassis, body, and suspension, one for electrical and computer aspects, a systems engineer, and a business team leader.
    5. The leaders assign and reassign particular duties to the sub-team leaders and the sub-team members working under them, oversee the engineering, and report progress to the chief engineer and to me.
    6. The overall and other leaders are responsible for all scheduling and "labor problems". We try to have a person who is good with people as a “manpower leader” to help with such problems and I am usually involved with serious manpower problems. The overall and other leaders jointly recommend grades to me that I utilize along with my grading of reports and with my impressions. I decide on the leaders grades partly on how they manage the other students, including whether they recommend appropriate grades for the students below them, based on performance. (Grades typically ranged from A+ B- as weak performers generally leave the team).
  4. At various times all students make individual formal or informal presentations of their designs to the whole group in weekly meeting and particularly in the various design and planning reviews. We have many of these presentations in the design stages, sometimes including "outside" people such as other faculty
  5. The students are responsible for fund raising, proposal writing, and sponsorship development. I help with advice, and especially with the big dollar requests, but they did most of it. They need at least one person on the team who likes, or is at least comfortable with, fund raising.
  6. I tell them that if we do not raise enough money by the end of the term then we would not proceed to construction stage. I also insist on enough time to develop the finished car or we would not go the competition. We scheduled several months for development which is barely adequate (and sometimes inadequate).
  7. I insist on a systems-engineering-type study of the requirements and the scoring, a system study of possible designs and components, and appropriate simulations before beginning detailed design. Then I require that all parts be designed, nothing just "built." I. e., I require discussions of alternatives and reasons for all aspects of the design, even if only "back of the envelope" calculations or, at very least, comparisons to other successful designs (scaled for weight, etc.) (Actually, because they have to present calculations to me, they are always well-done but I say "back of the envelope" to them to emphasize that they have to do at least something minimal, even to justify things like sizing of metal thicknesses, choice of alloy, etc.) I hold them strictly to professional standards (which are equivalent to those in industry and higher than those of many race teams).
  8. All design must be done with manufacturing in mind. I required the students to make and assemble essentially all non-purchased parts themselves, learning how where necessary.
  9. At the end of each term each student must hand in a short report written to be "what they would have wanted to read when they were starting to work on their aspect of the project." Lately they hand in two reports. Each person does one individual “personal report” which tells what they did and reflects on their roles, what they would personally do differently, how they think the team could improve, and what resources were most helpful to them in learning. Then each sub-team write or adds to a technical Wiki-type report that is intended to be the handbook to allow future teams get up to speed on the system or component.
  10. It is very important for the team to recruit and retain members carrying out what I call “business team functions” otherwise they will fall to the faculty advisor and team leaders and distract them from other things they need to do. These “business” functions include fundraising, publicity, relations with the college and university and outside the university, managing the budget and finances, bill of materials and cost reports for competition, managing recruiting, competition logistics, housing, and food, etc. This is very rewarding to the non-engineer and OR/IE majors who staff the business teams and usually lead to very lucrative job offers from engineering-related companies for them.
  11. The faculty advisor must note the need for leadership training as the students generally lack experience and sometimes lack respect for these abilities. (See sections of this web site on Leadership.)

1. 4. Recruiting

Student teams by their nature are high-turnover organizations, with many members (sometimes up to 60-70%) leaving each year due to graduation or other commitments. Team leaders and faculty advisors must therefore take an active interest in making sure that the team sustains and improves its human resources over time.

There are two primary considerations in recruiting new team members:

  1. What skills are necessary to further team development?
  2. If the team is already established, what skills are we in danger of losing to graduation and other forms of attrition?

With these questions in mind, project teams need to set up a course of action early to seek out and attract those candidates who fit key roles necessary to future success.

What skills are necessary?

  • Immediate needs: Team leaders and faculty advisors must be able to address pressing vacancies in the team structure by targeting recruitment toward suitable individuals. For example, if a project requires a certain degree of expertise in electrical engineering and there are very few electrical engineers on the team, there is obviously an immediate requirement for new team members. Leaders must also be aware of the varying nature of team roles and extend recruitment efforts to students outside of engineering fields to fulfill specialized skills such as cost accounting or business administration.
  • Intangible skills and talents: An effective team is a diverse team. Although it may be easier to manage a team of friends and people with like interests and backgrounds, people from diverse backgrounds, histories, and experiences bring new life and ideas to the table. Too many social extroverts might be difficult to manage, but a team solely of introverts might find it difficult to communicate. Highly enthusiastic and motivated people are always useful, but calm and reasoned people are necessary to keep the team on an even keel. Innovative and gifted thinkers are often helpful, but sometimes the team’s quest for innovation can consume valuable time and energy needed for basic tasks. Thus, conscientious and reliable people are often necessary to maintain balance. Effective leaders are necessary, but too many cooks can spoil the broth, as the saying goes.

Building an effective team involves keeping these and other dimensions in balance.

What skills are necessary?

A major consideration for existing student project teams is turnover. Given that student project teams are usually staffed by students in the latter phase of their academic careers, turnover on an annual basis can hit 50-70%, posing serious challenges for team continuity. Nevertheless, successful teams like FSAE and RoboCup can still be competitive by taking turnover into account in recruiting.

One strategy is to pay attention to turnover early and make plans to recruit new team members to meet project future needs. Indeed, many teams (ASTRO, Mini Baja, Solar Decathlon) are looking to recruit early in the spring semester to meet their current and future requirements.

Again, you must consider what kinds of people will be leaving and how best to replace them. On a task level, it is relatively easy to determine what skills will be needed and who, if anyone, will be returning with those skills. Many graduating members will have risen to positions of leadership, either formally or informally. Grooming new team leaders early can be invaluable in helping the transition process. Graduating team members should also play an active role in later phases of the project, guiding, mentoring, and training new and returning members to transfer their skill-based knowledge to next year’s team.

It is also smart to consider more intangible factors. If a team is losing many of its more enthusiastic and driven members and this enthusiasm is neither transferred nor replaced, the following year’s team culture will be noticeably different.

Also important is the effect of losing people who play liaison or bridging roles on the team. Social network analysts call these people potential "structural holes" (Burt, 1992). They are people with non-redundant ties to others. So, if person A is connected to person C through person B, person B is a structural hole because her/his removal eliminates a previous indirect connection between A and C. Conversely, if A is connected to C directly as well as through person B, the effect of B’s leaving is lessened. Often these people are implicitly used to keep communications going within a team and this is not noticed until they graduate and the “structural holes” become evident as problems.

Note that the goal is not necessarily to replicate previous teams. This is neither possible nor advisable; the team culture will change from year to year. Forecasting that change and trying to structure it so that valuable skills and social connections are not lost should be the goal.

Considerations in Recruiting

There are many considerations worthy to note in setting up a recruitment process.

  • Timing: Recruiting should take place at convenient times for your project. The beginning of the school year is a common choice, but there is some benefit to early and even late spring recruiting. FSAE, for example, often recruits for the following year in April. This allows new recruits to get their feet wet and obtain invaluable experience at competition. When these recruits return in the fall, they are considerably more prepared for the team experience than the new fall recruits.
  • Inter-Team Competition: With a large and growing number of project teams at Cornell, teams have to compete for talent. Individuals can shop around and pick projects of interest while teams must attract attempt to attract prospective students. In the interest of building and maintaining good relations with other teams, it is good to coordinate recruiting efforts with other teams to ensure fair access to talent. This will allow individuals to pick the team that best suites their interests and personalities, resulting in happier team members overall.
  • Selection Process: Teams should be selective about whom they pick. How that selection happens is up to the team. Many will have a formal application and interview process and make selections based on information gained from that process. Some teams (e.g., Solar Decathlon) are relatively liberal in the number of people they pick; others (e.g., FSAE, RoboCup) will accept few applicants. Other teams forgo a formal process. Team membership emerges naturally as people help out and become involved. University of Toronto’s Formula SAE team, for example, will reduce more than 200 potential volunteers at the beginning of the year to a manageable core team and group of regular helpers based on interest and demonstrated motivation.

Both processes can work and can even work in concert. FSAE has long told those rejected in interviews to, “prove the team wrong” by still showing up as a volunteer and proving their worth. Many quality team members were initially rejected—one member a record five times. Once brought on board, he proved his value quickly demonstrating one flaw with the interview selection process.

Although it is tempting to say that this osmosis into team culture is the best method, do consider that a formal recruiting drive and process can attract others (particularly non-engineers) into the process. Another recent FSAE team leader found out about the FSAE team during recruiting; without the effort, he might not have otherwise been aware of the project because he was an economics major.

1. 5. Financial Aspects

One of the first steps in planning for a new or continuing team is estimating the resources a team will need, including a budget. Most teams will need some financial resources beyond the computer and machine shop facilities in engineering. In some case their advisor may have some financial resources but in most cases a team will have to do some fundraising on their own. Relatively small amount of money can be sought from Cornell as part of the team registration and funding process as outlined at:

For larger amounts of money fundraising will be needed. There is a section on that part II of these documents. (This section is under construction but related material is available at:

1. 6. Administrative Structures

Setting up a strong team structure right from the start helps prevent many problems before they can develop. There are many simple ideas you can consider to make your team structures more transparent, open, and efficient and thus reduce or examine problems that may grow into bigger ones.

A logical structure eliminates confusion, provides for multiple sources of communication, and makes communication among functional groups and individuals that much more consistent, transparent, and fair.

Team Structure

Team Admin Org

A typical team structure looks something like this (This example from Cornell FSAE. Sub-teams will vary depending on the project.)

Structuring Reports on Progress

Another major complaint about meetings is that they seem to rehash the same old material. An effective way of breaking this potentially vicious cycle is to account for and incorporate meeting history. Meetings should be documented with meeting minutes so that you can track their history and provide documentation to those project members unable to attend. This also serves as a means of tracking action items agreed upon at previous meetings that can be addressed first in the agenda in subsequent meetings. Another effective method of structuring reports on progress and relaying this information to others is the Quad Chart. A Quad Chart is a simple, one-page summary of goals, action items, deliverables, and future directions. An example is provided below.

A summary of major work completed since last meeting based on last meeting’s identified outcomes/issues
A summary of resolutions based on what was accomplished.
New directions and ideas that result from these resolutions.
Quantitative and qualitative results from accomplishments and outcomes.
Potential metrics for unresolved issues
Difficult and unresolved issues
Plans for action

Some companies require a single PowerPoint slide with this format on a weekly basis from each sub-team or person at team meetings.

With this structure, you can quickly identify what was done, what results from what was done, what basis has been used to evaluate what was done, and what issues remain to be done. The right-hand column helps structure subsequent left-hand columns. These charts can be quickly presented to all members of the team and help build common understanding of team production as well as help team leaders determine progress and identify issues that are no adequately being resolved.

The Importance of Constant Communication

Effective meetings are important because they are a common channel of communication amongst the team members. However, they are not the only available option, generally other channels are needed.

For example, electronic mail lists can help disseminate information and updates among team members, reducing the need for long meetings and keeping team members abreast of developments so progress reports can be processed quickly.

Single lists may be useful for smaller teams, but larger teams may find more complex structures of lists more efficient. FSAE, for example, runs a list for all team members as well as a range of sub-team and ad hoc team mail lists for smaller workgroups. Overall team leaders are automatically recipients of every sub-team’s list activity, keeping them informed of details at all levels, and also have a list for their own communication. In addition, less professional social communication is routed to a voluntary list comprising both of present and former team members. Email traffic on these lists is very high indeed, but the amount of information contained is also quite high and essential at keeping all members and leaders especially aware of developments and debates in the team.

Electronic forums can also be useful channels for communication. The Solar Decathlon team runs a forum that contains threaded topic discussions as well as spaces to upload and share files, view team documentation, etc.

Facilitation person-to-person communication can also be an important manner of stitching together team activities. Many questions are best answered through a quick phone call. Given that an increasing number of teams may have personal cellular phones; these enable team members to be in constant contact even if they are otherwise occupied. Some teams, such as Formula SAE, have encouraged members to use the same cellular provider, making calls between members “free.” This of course can also lead to some team members finding themselves working 24/7, which can prove annoying to some members. Some people understandably enjoy and expect a degree of personal freedom from the team and its actions.

In the end, face-to-face communication remains a rich source of information and an effective mechanism for building social cohesion. Much can be learned about team dynamics and progress by simply hanging out with team members and talking to them about team and non-team activities alike. Similarly, social events can build interpersonal relationships that provide a solid basis for building technical alliances later. There is certainly value in encouraging team members to spend at least some time in non-productive “face time” outside of their duties.

FSAE History

Cornell’s FSAE Racing Team was established in 1986. Professor Albert R. George became the faculty advisor overseeing approximately a dozen mechanical engineering students who began researching and designing a racecar from scratch. Since then, the team has grown substantially and has been greatly diversified. Today, an average Cornell FSAE team is compromised of about 50 undergraduate and graduate students and has had participating members from nearly every school within Cornell

Arecibo at Dusk

With enhanced suspension geometry and a better integrated engine design, ARG07 carried the team to victory at the 2007 University of Toronto Shootout.