Mary Lynn Realff: Team Whisperer

Dr. Mary Lynn Realff is an Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, but on a given day you might run into her in classes from English Composition and Technical Writing to Senior Design Capstone courses. Why? Because of her passion for teaching the team skills students urgently need in both academic and industry settings. Dr. Realff is a long-term member of the Georgia Tech community, from her undergraduate degree in Textile Engineering to her 27 years as a faculty member. During her time teaching the mechanics of textile structures and polymer science, she became increasingly convinced of the importance of group work, and of the difficulties inherent to a sink-or-swim approach to teaching team-based projects. “Students want to do good design projects,” Realff notes. Too often, however, students are “mired in all this negative team dynamics stuff” and don’t know how to handle it. Faculty members, too, want to provide a good experience for their students, but frequently are not offered the opportunities to learn how to facilitate successful groups.

Dr. Realff knew there had to be a better way. Over the course of the last 16 years, her exploration of the pedagogy of group work brought her to strengths-based theories of education. She began drawing from research in positive psychology and the Science of Team Science, adapting tools such as Gallup Strengths and the Johari Window to proactively head off potential misunderstandings and unproductive conflict in the classroom. This work sparked what has now become the Effective Team Dynamics (ETD) Initiative.

ETD is based on research-driven methods of improving team function, focusing on reflective evaluation of a student’s own habits, skills, knowledge, and abilities as well as the requirements of specific assignments, and the unique dynamics present in each new team. CliftonStrengths describes 34 talent “themes” such as “learner,” “adaptability,” and “empathy.” Students take an assessment and are given their top five talent themes based on their responses. Using the language of CliftonStrengths, ETD helps students identify their patterns of thought and behavior, name and build on their strengths, identify the diverse strengths of any team, and interpret behavior of team members in productive ways. This common language, Realff suggests, “offers a way for me to express what I do best and what excites me.” Even more, it helps each team member realize that other people think and behave differently – and that these differences can be a source of strength for the project rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

Focusing on what is right with people is shown to positively impact well-being and engagement as well as produce more successful group projects. Over the past four years, Realff and ETD have contributed to a growing movement across Georgia Tech to teach successful interpersonal skills as well as the content and methodology of specific disciplines. ETD’s potential was recognized with a Strategy Plan Advisory Group grant, which it used to develop curriculum and work to train students and faculty in team skills. ETD has worked with over 1,000 faculty and staff members across all of Georgia Tech’s six colleges, which, in turn, has led over 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students to identify and leverage their personal strengths in ways that are beneficial to the group.

When asked about her own strengths, ETD Director Dr. Mary Lynn Realff identifies herself in the language of CliftonStrengths as having the “arranger” and “individualization” talents. Identifying these traits allows her to take over roles that she shines in and enjoys, like organizing large, multifaceted projects such as ETD. CliftonStrengths has also helped Realff to discover and articulate her teaching and leadership style as “a person who is motivated by a core set of values and will be ‘all in,’” who “loves to learn and find new ways to help others learn.” Realff travels around the country presenting on her work with ETD, but Georgia Tech always comes first for her. She is energized by bringing instructors and students wishing to improve their team skills into the ETD family.

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