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Building 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?

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.

Materials and Resources for Building a Culture of Collaboration

Incorporate interdisciplinary teaching into your classes by topic:

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