National Science Foundation Spotlight

Learn more about MSU's Future of Work team, funded by a grant from National Science Foundation.

            Back in 2018, a team led by Michigan State University’s (MSU) Construction Management Program in the School of Planning, Design and Construction (SPDC) was selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to receive a grant of $417K. The initiative has only grown since then, receiving another $1.2 million in 2020, and another quarter of a million dollars in the two years since.

            With this funding, MSU has formed a Future of Work (FOW) team of faculty and students from Construction Management, Applied Engineering, Psychology, Economics, and Computer Science. This NSF-FOW research team aims to provide intelligent social network interventions to improve team and project outcomes for the architecture, engineering and construction industries.

            The principal investigators for this initiative include Sinem Mollaoglu (SPDC), Kenneth Frank (Counseling, Educational Psychology & Special Education), Hanzhe Zhang (Economics), Jiliang Tang (Computer Science & Engineering), and Richard Deshon (Psychology).

            Like many others, this research team had to face struggles brought on by the ongoing pandemic, primarily being unable to meet in person. But their recent return to in-person meetings has revitalized the team. In the last two semesters, team members have been gathering each week for an in-person session to work together on their research.

            "It has been a challenge to facilitate the team integration in the last year or so to the extent we desire in our research projects, due to the pandemic - and we are not alone in this challenge. Despite continuous efforts over zoom, we learned that nothing replaces the in-person experience,” said Professor Sinem Mollaoglu, program director of SPDC Construction Management.

             “I feel like we started to restore some much-needed team spirit via our once-a-week in-person teamwork sessions in Fall 2022 semester. Not only does the work continue at a much more reliable pace; but also, we feel much more energized about our collective efforts because of these sessions."

            The NSF-FOW research team had been able to continue progressing during the height of the pandemic despite these challenges, but they have a great appreciation for the advantages that come with meeting in-person, as opposed to online only.

            “We are valuing in-person meetings much more than before the pandemic. Emails lacked instantaneous and higher-quality responses and interactions in-person meetings provided. Zoom provided chances to talk in groups but lacked the ability to effectively organize subgroups because they are often dynamically changing in a way that cannot be handled by breakout rooms,” said Hanzhe Zhang, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics.

            “In addition, there are other pleasant surprises: A person overhearing a problem discussed by another group may be able to solve the problem in just a few seconds. Last, but perhaps most importantly, we get to know each other better and build personal bonds and trust in each other that will help our long-term team spirit and productivity."

            Although the team as a whole has been able to benefit from the return of in-person meetings, it is likely that the ones who have benefited most are the students on the team. Meeting face-to-face has given them renewed opportunities for growth by giving them a variety of experiences, and an opportunity to work with people that have other specialties.

            “Over the past year of virtual teamwork and collaboration, finally having the opportunity to work with others in-person has been wonderful. It has given me perspective on the project regarding how many individuals and different disciplines are involved,” said Lia Mastroianni, a Senior majoring in Construction Management at MSU.

            “This experience has given me the opportunity to grow as a student and young professional as I learn and apply my outside work experience and classwork to my assigned tasks. As a student, this experience has provided me the tools to further enhance my ability to think analytically and be a problem solver.”

            With the students working alongside other students and professors, many with different educational backgrounds, they are able to get a more well-rounded educational experience, while conducting research that has a tangible impact on the world right now.

            “Beyond the advantages of working in person, it has been great to work with students and faculty from so many academic backgrounds,” said Tanner Thering, a senior majoring in Economics at MSU.

            “I'm an economics major, so it's cool to get to work with engineering, computer science, and psychology students I otherwise might not interact with very often. We all bring our own knowledge and skills to the meetings, and share this information with each other.”

Did you find this article useful?