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Teaching Project Survival Skills: Lessons from 'The Martian'

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Engineering Management: Project Management and Partnerships

Tagged Division

Engineering Management

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Wayne Paul Pferdehirt University of Wisconsin, Madison Orcid 16x16

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Wayne P. Pferdehirt is the director of distance degree programs for the College of Engineering and director of the Master of Engineering Management program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wayne also co-teaches the Master of Engineering Management program's Technical Project Management and Foundations of Engineering Leadership courses. Prior to joining UW-Madison, Pferdehirt directed the Midwest solid waste consulting services of an international environmental consulting firm and led energy conservation research projects for Argonne National Laboratory. He has a BS in civil engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University and an MS in civil engineering with an emphasis in regional planning from Northwestern University. Wayne is a frequent speaker and author on continuing education for engineers, and is a member of the College of Engineering’s Education Innovation Committee.

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Jeffrey S. Russell University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Dr. Jeffrey S. Russell is the Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning and Dean of the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his role as Vice Provost, he is striving to make UW-Madison a global leader in the service to lifelong learners. He has held these dual responsibilities since 2011.

Jeff is currently leading a campus-wide strategic planning process focused on creating more transformative educational experiences for lifelong learners.

Jeff first joined UW-Madison’s faculty in 1989 as an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where he co-founded the Construction Engineering and Management Program and developed the construction curriculum. In addition, he has authored and co-authored papers on the subject of educating civil engineers. His body of work demonstrates his commitment to using emerging technology in the classroom to prepare the next generation of engineers and other students for the challenges of the future.

Jeff was honored in 2014 with an Outstanding Projects and Leaders Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Civil Engineers. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from University of Cincinnati, master’s and doctoral degrees from Purdue University, and is a registered professional engineer in Wisconsin.

Jeff grew up in a construction family where his father ran the field operations for a small regional contractor in northeast Ohio. He spent his youth working in construction, learning the value of hard work, integrity, organization, and leadership. He has always respected the important role of labor in achieving project success.

Strongly influenced by his sister, who has Down syndrome, Jeff values the importance of family, the joys of life, and the appreciation of differences and diversity.

(608) 890-2318

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John S Nelson PE University of Wisconsin, Madison Department of Civil & Environmental Enginieering

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John Nelson, PE, is adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW–Madison and Chief Technical Officer of Global Infrastructure Asset Management LLC, an asset management firm specializing in sustainable infrastructure investments. Previously, Nelson was CEO of Affiliated Engineers, and under his leadership, the engineering firm became nationally recognized for designing dynamic building systems for large and complicated projects. His background includes design, applications, and research of dynamic building systems, and management/technical consulting for the investment, design, manufacturing and construction industries. Nelson received an MS in Mechanical Engineering from UW–Madison, and currently serves on the UW Foundation, Nelson Institute, and Center for Advanced Studies of Business boards. He is also chairman of a privately held engineering firm.

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“At some point, everything’s going to go South on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. You have to solve one problem, and then solve the next problem, and then solve the next problem, and if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.” Those are the words spoken by Astronaut and biologist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, in the final scene of the 2015 film, “The Martian.” Watney is speaking to a class of aspiring astronauts about the reality of space missions. He knows and has experienced the very real, unpredictable nature of space missions, having just returned from a mission where he was abandoned on Mars. Watney and his crew had trained and planned extensively, and had scheduled every activity of the mission. Then the mission “went South,” big time. Success from that point would not be determined by following the pre-project plan and schedule, but by the ability of Watney and team to adapt to the evolving reality of the circumstances, scarce resources, and time-limited opportunities in front of them. Are we preparing our students to face the same “living order” whitewater of real-world projects? Too often project management courses present students with models, tools and practices that implicitly assume we can plan and schedule all details at project launch. Success is assured if the initial schedule is enforced. In the world of real projects, circumstances, resources, and time requirements change, sometimes suddenly. Are we equipping students with the agility, resolve, and tools to adapt their team’s efforts for redefined success when their projects “go South?” The proposed paper and presentation will focus on lessons learned in teaching “living order” project management to practicing engineers as part of the curriculum for a Master of Engineering Management program. We will discuss the evolution of the design of this course over the past 10+ years to address the very real needs of practicing professionals to design their teams, their planning, scheduling, and monitoring methods to be agile and adaptable to navigate the churning whitewater of living-order projects.

Pferdehirt, W. P., & Russell, J. S., & Nelson, J. S. (2016, June), Teaching Project Survival Skills: Lessons from 'The Martian' Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26046

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