Over the past few decades, research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has experienced a major shift towards collaboration. On a quest to prepare graduate students for today’s team-based research environments, Dr Susan Cozzens at Georgia Institute of Technology is leading an interdisciplinary team in the development and implementation of evidence-based ‘team science’ professional development materials for STEM graduate students.
The Rise of Team Contributions in Science
Over the second half of the twentieth century, STEM research started to become increasingly team-based, with a growing number of multi-authored publications and studies carried out by groups of scientists. Despite this notable shift, there has been little or no change in the preparation of students entering STEM careers that involve greater collaboration.
Science of Team Science (SciTS) is a new discipline that aims to understand and enhance the success of collaborative research. Developed in response to the observed trend towards larger research teams, SciTS engages scholars from a variety of fields, including organisational science, social psychology and health promotion, in addition to groups outside of academia, such as private companies.
The findings obtained from SciTS studies are already helping researchers to develop evidence-based tools and programs to improve the effectiveness of team science initiatives. These tools can be used to prepare students for collaborative and interdisciplinary work, ultimately assisting them in tackling their future professional endeavours.
Several universities worldwide have started to recognise the increasing shift towards team-based research and are implementing strategies that promote a cultural shift towards team science. These strategies include establishing on-campus interdisciplinary research centres and seed grants for team-based proposals, as well as building strong ties with local laboratories and companies. Such university-driven initiatives that foster collaboration can provide students with a better understanding of how to best operate in teams. Unfortunately, however, graduate programs almost never pay explicit attention to the skills students need to survive and thrive in these settings.
To equip graduate students for success in today’s team-based research world and foster more effective science collaborations, an interdisciplinary team of STEM researchers at Georgia Tech, led by Dr Susan Cozzens, has been developing, implementing and assessing evidence-based team science training experiences for STEM graduate students. Joining Dr Cozzens in this work are Dr Mary Lynn Realff from Materials Science and Engineering, Dr Kata Dosá of the Center for Teaching and Learning, and Dr Angus Wilkinson of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Dr Meltem Alemdar and Christopher Cappelli from Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing, are assessing the curriculum materials.
A Team Science Program for Graduate Students
Integrating Team Science into the STEM Graduate Training Experience, a project initially devised by Dr Nancy Devino, now of the University of Texas at ClearLake, builds on prior evidence of the efficacy of team training to promote teamwork skills and enhance team effectiveness. It draws on some of the best practices for team training in a variety of sectors, including education, industry, healthcare and the military, as well as undergraduate team training at Georgia Tech, while also taking inspiration from previous NSF-funded team science initiatives.
The project design is based on a three-dimensional C.A.S. approach, which stands for competencies, audience and settings. It aims to introduce team science competencies to a diverse student audience, in a variety of settings. These competencies include knowledge about the nature and value of teamwork, skills in communication and conflict management, and attitudes about diversity – both cultural and disciplinary.
In order to maximise the flexibility of the program and its transferability to other institutions, the curricular material is created in small units that can be delivered within different settings. For instance, the same curriculum can be integrated into semester-long academic courses or combined into half-day or full-day workshops.
Integrating Team Science into the STEM Graduate Training Experience is designed to be innovative and transformative. In contrast with other team science endeavours, it does not limit the training to students in one discipline, but is instead offering it to all STEM graduate students at Georgia Tech.
Dr Cozzens and her colleagues believe that team science training will eventually become a standard part of graduate education and reach nationwide institutionalisation. Their work could offer an important example of how to equip STEM graduate students for collaborative and team-based work environments.
The new professional development team science materials available at Georgia Tech follow a multi-dimensional approach. They are based on an innovative design that allows Dr Cozzens and her colleagues to study the development of transportable team science competencies for a graduate student audience and in a variety of settings.
The project’s implementation plan follows a series of key steps. Firstly, it involves the adaptation and design of instructional materials that could help to achieve the desired objectives. Secondly, these instructional materials will be tailored to fit a variety of institutional settings.
As part of the project, the team is assessing the effectiveness of the learning materials, then revising in response to student feedback. This cycle is set to be repeated several times, with the researchers learning from previous implementations and using their observations to perfect and improve the program.
Once these materials have been developed, refined and tested, the researchers will make them available at Georgia Tech, initially for students completing MS and PhD degrees in computing, engineering and science. In Years 2 and 3 of the project, the researchers aim to engage with other institutions, to test their curricular materials in other educational settings.
Program Structure and Content
The team science curriculum is designed to teach graduate students to appreciate the importance of collaboration, cultivating the interpersonal skills required for effective team performance. During each of the modules, students will participate in team-building exercises, discussions, and interactive activities, designed to strengthen their collaboration skills. As many STEM research teams now collaborate remotely, the course content also highlights some of the challenges and opportunities associated with virtual work spaces.
The six modules under development address the following core competencies: the value of teams; team composition, roles, and leadership; communication in teams; conflict management in teams; diversity in collaboration and team science; and technical tools for distributed teams. Each module has multiple components, which are designed to be delivered in time segments of 15–45 minutes each.
Each of the modules features complementary instructional resources, including interactive and web-based exercises, case studies, facilitated discussions, team building exercises adapted from other sources and assigned readings. Participating students will also be asked to complete self-assessment questionnaires to better understand their strengths, weaknesses, conflict resolution styles, and social sensitivity, as well as those of their team-mates.
After completing the modules, the students should have a better understanding of the differences between working alone and in teams. They should also be more aware of communication challenges associated with team-work, roles and conflict management styles, the implications of diversity, and effective tools to collaborate remotely. The training should enhance their collaboration skills, teaching them strategies to tackle communication challenges, diversity and conflicts.
Evaluating the Project’s Outcomes
Georgia Tech’s Competencies, Audience, and Settings (C.A.S.) approach includes a robust and comprehensive assessment plan that will allow the project team to answer research questions such as: ‘Which instructional materials and approaches are more effective for students’ development of team science competencies?’ and ‘What setting is most suitable for learning and retaining specific transportable skills?’.
Assessment results will provide Dr Cozzens and her colleagues with crucial guidance on how to improve the training, while also measuring its impact on participating students’ team science knowledge and skills.
The project’s assessment leader, Dr Meltem Alemdar, and her colleague Christopher Cappelli, are also contributing to the curriculum design process, so as to maximise the potential for measuring the impact of the program on participating students’ knowledge and skills. Dr Alemdar will work with peers at other institutions that are testing the materials, to collect and analyse data measuring the effectiveness of the team science materials.
The assessment data will be collected using both quantitative and qualitative methods, such as student and faculty surveys, institutional records, observations collected during student focus groups, and document analysis. As well as determining whether the program’s objectives have been met, this assessment might also provide key insight about the effectiveness of specific SciTS modules, strategies and techniques, which could inform further work and initiatives.
A Transformative Team Science Project
Integrating Team Science into the STEM Graduate Training Experience is an innovative project aimed at preparing STEM graduate students to enter careers that involve team-based research and collaboration, whether in academia, industry, the government, or the non-profit sector. While the project at Georgia Tech primarily targets MS and PhD students graduating in STEM disciplines, the same course content could be transferred and adapted to serve different student populations in a variety of educational settings.
The SciTS modules developed by Dr Cozzens and her colleagues offer a flexible and complementary team science curriculum that can be delivered to diverse audiences in a variety of settings. As the researchers hope to develop a curriculum that can be adopted nationally, they plan to test its effectiveness in different content delivery settings and schedules and train graduate program staff to use the modules on their own.
In future, the training could be implemented at other universities, promoting effective team science preparation on a far larger scale. By developing, implementing and assessing the impact of these comprehensive team science processional development materials, Georgia Tech could become a key contributor to the evolution of STEM graduate education.