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Build a Culture of Collaboration

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions and presentations at the 2013 Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop.

An important consideration for interdisciplinary teaching is the nature and 'culture' of students in particular disciplines. In other words, students do not think and learn in the same way. In the same regard, students' worldviews influence the way they think, act, and how they weigh values of different aspects of problems and solutions. There is nothing inherently 'wrong' with the difference in cultures, but it is important to recognize there are differences so that one can design teaching to appeal to different students as well as to capitalize on opportunities to strengthen their ability to work in teams, as they will likely have to do in the workforce.

Bringing together economics, ethics and science to address sustainability is an intellectually powerful focus. It provides opportunities to strengthen relationships between institutions and their communities and between academia and society. It also provides opportunities to bring together schools within an institution. Capitalizing on the interests of business and other professional schools will provide new financial models, new intellectual and research opportunities, and new legitimacy for our programs. Similarly, thinking proactively about areas in which geoscience understanding bring a competitive advantage (e.g. global security) opens new opportunities.

Different Ways of Approaching Problem Solving: An example

Consider, for instance, tasking an introductory-level environmental science class with a role-play activity to determine where to build a highway in a landslide-prone area. In the real world, engineers, geoscientists, businessmen, and policy-makers would comprise some of the stakeholders in the process of determining the best location for the road. How might they approach the problem?

  • The geology majors may approach the problem in a way that builds a map of the local geology along with geological history of the area; they would likely consider the history of slides in the area and the geologic history of the surrounding area or analogous sites, the material the road would be built on, etc.
  • The engineers in the class may focus on finding the best solution to the problem using computer models that calculate the likelihood that a landslide will occur under various design scenarios, including safety factors and measurement uncertainties, and other numerical approaches based on past events and empirical formulas.
  • The business majors may approach the problem by weighing the cost of mitigating the hazard vs the cost and frequency of potential small or large landslide.
  • The policy-makers may primarily consider the societal need for the road, how the public would perceive the building of the road, how the tax dollars were being spent, safety issues, etc.

Each discipline adds a unique piece to the puzzle and each lends an important consideration in the decision making and problem solving process.

LeAnne Teruya, a participant at the 2013 Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop, tells her students this folktale to introduce the idea of multiple working hypotheses. It is also a helpful analogy in considering the benefits of including different ways of thinking as we move forward in integrating other disciplines into the classroom:

The Tale of the Six Blind Brahmin

One day six blind Brahmin determined to discover what an elephant was like. They found an elephant and the first Brahmin stumbled upon the side of the elephant and declared: "Oh, an elephant is like a wide rough wall." The second Brahmin happened upon the tusks of the elephant and he said, "No, an elephant is like a spear." The third Brahmin examined the trunk of the elephant and countered that an elephant is like a snake. The fourth Brahmin felt the tail of the elephant and insisted that an elephant is instead like a rope. The fifth Brahmin having found the elephant's ear, exclaimed that the others were wrong, because an elephant most certainly is flat and fan-shaped. The last Brahmin encountered the leg of the elephant and was convinced that none of the others knew anything because most surely an elephant has the shape of the trunk of a tree.

Who was right? They all were. They all had a piece of the truth, and if they all assembled their pieces together, they would have constructed a good picture of what an elephant is.

Making Problem Solving Accessible

Success on interdisciplinary teams in all venues requires valuing the perspectives and skills that others bring to a problem. This valuing is necessary at the faculty level to support opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. Speaker series and interdisciplinary research teams can build appreciation of the importance and difficulty of interdisciplinary work. The uncomfortable truth is that none of us has a monopoly on useful ideas and perceptions. We approach full understanding through collaboration with people with different skills, background, life experiences, sensitivities, and motivations. Diversity (broadly defined) is a key ingredient for developing full understanding and making good decisions. This requires we get out of our comfort zone.

Since students do learn differently, it is important to think about ways to increase the accessibility of the problem in a way that students can understand and work together to problem solve. Thus, it is important to instill cross-disciplinary thinking and the value in solving problems collaboratively, using teamwork, and shared vision of how to work together. Values are important too, and there is a need to understand different viewpoints and value them too. In order to foster this collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach to problem solving, there needs to be a common structure and understanding of the nature of the problem.

Overcoming Challenges and Barriers to Collaboration

There are many barriers to building collaboration given the differences in disciplinary cultures. While the barriers may seem intimidating, there are many things you can do to promote the importance of and build a culture of collaboration.

  • Explicitly address the strengths and traditions that different groups bring to the table and have the students outline strategies for working together
  • Recognize that different disciplines have different attitudes, values, beliefs, and ways of solving problems.
  • Build a culture that values collaboration and is respectful of the spectrum of expertise and interest/values/approaches of other groups by:
    • Inviting speakers to give guest presentations, whether they're from other departments, the community, or representatives from the workforce.
    • Expanding opportunities for faculty interaction. This can be through learning communities, special interest groups, or, at a course level, taking advantage of team teaching.
    • Increasing student interaction will naturally buffer the students from the barriers of silos
    • Implementing pedagogies that promote working as a team and interdisciplinary work. Service learning is a strategy where the expertise of all involved can be brought to bear and respect for and skill with collaboration can be built. Teaching with real-world problems can motivate engage students in applying classroom knowledge from a variety of courses to solve problems.
    • Working on problems together at all levels (faculty, students, both together). This will build required knowledge, trust and skill.
  • Start small and work your way up: Try to integrate interdisciplinary projects into a course rather than trying to integrate curricula from the get-go. Involving faculty from other departments in these projects can aid in building bridges between different departments. For example, see how Rick Oches from Bentley University integrated different disciplines in a course project described here: Ethanol & Sustainability Teaching: Integrating Business, Public Policy, and Science (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 3MB Jul25 12)
  • Public science and engineering literacy is a shared goal for scientists and engineering; use this as a starting point to work from.
  • Use common themes such as sustainability or systems thinking as context for relevance of study in both disciplines
  • In problem-solving activities, reduce areas of overlap between pieces of the problem to highlight need for expertise from other fields while maintaining sufficient overlap to illustrate connections and why each piece matters.
  • Illuminate the value in different parts of the problem-solving process, from the front end (hypothesis) through the back end (solution)
  • Note that students want different things out of classes and try to provide a breadth of learning opportunities, including reflective thinking, problem solving using data, etc.
  • Recognize that some students embrace ambiguity while others are driven towards practicality and try to integrate examples of both into the classroom.

Materials and Resources for Building a Culture of Collaboration

Incorporate interdisciplinary teaching into your classes by topic: