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How Penn Architecture moved from an in-person team, to a collaborative force to be reckoned with

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Community Manager
Lately, we have been interested in how different teams have adjusted to working from home in the longer term. A lot of teams switched to working from home, or working remotely, very quickly and assumed it would be a short time before they could get back to normal, but for some, it’s created an opportunity to change how they work entirely.
 

 

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Our colleagues over at the Work in Progress blog took a deep dive in to how Penn architecture students are using robots to remotely design and build a pavilion. You can check it out here if you want to learn more about their Venice Biennale work, and how quickly the Penn team had to, and were able to, adapt to an entirely new way of working. 
 
“Architects are very hands-on,” says Ezio Blasetti, professor in the Graduate architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “Many aspects of this class were designed to be in person.”
“One of the biggest challenges is transitioning from software analysis to actual applications with the hardware—in this case, carbon fiber,” says Penn student Kevin He. “It requires a great deal of coding and testing, while being able to observe how the material reacts. We’re learning how to create patterns of carbon fiber by coding the robot arm to weave in specific ways onto a mold. All of this requires a lot of discussion and teamwork.”
 
Obviously, while architecture is very technologically advanced, there are a lot of process that need, or needed, an in-person collaboration, purely because that’s how it had been done up until now. But on March 11, like so many schools around the world, Penn closed its campus to slow the spread of COVID-19. This included the robotics lab. Thankfully, Blasetti and his students did settle into working from their homes. 
 

Setting up a new space

Blasetti has set his class up virtually, relying especially on Dropbox and Zoom. They have a dedicated Dropbox Space, serving as the hub for code, digital renderings, images, and other project files. Lectures and presentations run through Zoom and Dropbox Paper, where students present their findings and provide feedback to one another. 
“Dropbox Spaces has been really helpful in keeping everything in the same place and organized,” Blasetti says. “I personally really enjoy the immediacy and transparency of the tool: the way you get notified anytime a student or a collaborator updates something in our shared project space. We're using it as an operating system for our collaboration.“
 
Keeping that collaborative, back-and-forth spirit alive has been a priority for Blasetti. “It's critical that people will learn by example and from each other,” he says. “If an experiment succeeds with one team, it quickly propagates throughout the class. We’re trying to cultivate an environment where that level of experimentation and sharing is encouraged, because this kind of research doesn’t work because of a single genius. It happens by putting different people with different ideas together, and I’m just glad that we’ve still been able to do that while not being in the same place.”
 
“What started as a very practical, hands-on class has turned into a study about digital collaboration,” Victor says. “Schools and also companies are going to have this experience that when you're forced to work remotely, you realize the advantages of working remotely. It can be hard to get everyone together in person, even in normal times. But if you have just have an open Dropbox Paper document, those people can get to that work on their timeline anywhere they happen to be. You actually end up building huge amounts of efficiency: instead of struggling to get people to sit down in meetings and pay attention, then go back to their desk, write up the action items, only for someone to send out a now-outdated Word document in an email—I think we’re all learning better ways because we’re being forced to.”
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