Diversity Can Benefit Teamwork in STEM

by Jennifer Weaver, PhD
  • The majority of research in STEM fields is conducted through collaborations and working groups, where a diversity of ideas need to be proposed and analyzed to determine the best strategy(ies) for solving a problem.
  • As research projects in STEM inherently require creativity and innovation, teamwork can be enhanced by having members with a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences.
  • The best STEM assignments need to allow for creativity, innovation and collaboration, otherwise students may not benefit.
  • Strategies for creating teams in the classroom: division by i) random assignment, ii) student choice, iii) complementary student thinking preferences / skill sets, or iv) shared interests.

When trying to solve complex problems, progress often results from diverse perspectives. That is, the ability to see the problem differently, not simply “being smart,” often is the key to a breakthrough. As a result, when groups of intelligent individuals are working to solve hard problems, the diversity of the problem solvers matters more than their individual ability. Thus, diversity is not distinct from enhancing overall quality—it is integral to achieving it.

The Difference, Scott E. Page

Why is diversity beneficial for teamwork in STEM classes?

Diversity = differences, whether in race, sex, ethnic background, disability, nationality, etc. And without different viewpoints, experiences, knowledge and perspectives, necessary processes for innovation in STEM, such as creativity, critical analysis and conflict, can not occur (or can not occur to the same extent). As research projects in STEM inherently require creativity and innovation, teamwork can be enhanced by having a group composed of diverse members. These differing viewpoints and perspectives can also help students in understanding a problem collectively, or viewing it in a variety of ways that can enrich their comprehension and depth of understanding.

Why do STEM students need to learn how to work in diverse teams?

In academia, the majority of research in STEM fields is conducted through collaborations and working groups, where a diversity of ideas need to be proposed and analyzed to determine the best strategy(ies) for solving a problem. In the technology sector, product development is done as a team, with specific roles for each individual but its success is predicated on each member of the team providing a different skill set / perspective. Thus, students who are interested in both academia and industry will benefit from learning how to successfully work in a diverse team.

Creating teams in your classroom that are diverse AND successful

There are numerous strategies for creating groups in the classroom:

Random. Randomly assigning students to teams ensures that there will be diversity, without you imposing your own strategy for diversity. If you use a random approach, justify that you want the teams to be heterogeneous because you feel the variety will be beneficial to each of the teams, and that you want them to use this variety to improve their team functioning as well as their final product.

Student ChoiceIf you decide to allow students choose their own teams, be explicit about what the project is and the objectives of the team project. Try to highlight perspectives, skills and experience that will be useful in the group, and this may temper the reaction of students to only chose their friends, or at a minimum, to choose amongst their friends for this project more carefully! In addition, you could impose some structure to the team formation, for example, by splitting the class into those who are available before lecture to meet and those who are not, and then allow them to self-select within these pre-determined groups. It is especially worth investing more time in building successful teams when it is a semester-long project, and students may benefit from “speed”-team-building (a take-off on speed-dating) where they have a set amount of time to discuss their project ideas with other members of the class.

Student Skill Sets / Thinking Preferences. If possible, it would be beneficial to create teams of students with complementary skill sets or thinking preferences. For example, you could conduct a brief ‘thinking preferences’’ activity with your students (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herrmann_Brain_Dominance_Instrument). Based on a self-reflection of the way they think and interact, students will determine one of the four dominant ways of thinking that is most indicative of themselves. This could also be done based on skill sets. Teams could then be formed based on having at least one representative of the dominant skills sets or thinking preferences. Encourage students to share their traits with their fellow group members. When each group has a better understanding of how their composite members think and what their skillsets are that they can contribute to the group, the group will already function better as a team and have a better chance at capitalizing on each of the students’ skills.

Shared Interests. Finally, Sara Beckman, from the Haas School of Business, suggests forming teams around shared interest in a topic. In her class, students propose ideas they want to work on and then submit their top five choices for projects. The instructors form teams based on students’ choices, and attempt to mix students from different backgrounds on the teams.  

Some Final Thoughts….

1) To structure teamwork to be more inclusive, define the necessary roles within the group (don’t let particular groups of students fall into stereotypical roles or roles with less responsibility) and also be sure to structure teamwork such that not only are the learning outcomes strictly defined, but also the parameters of how the team will function.

2) Ensure that you are creating teamwork assignments that lend themselves to the diversity of your classroom and the work environments your students will enter upon graduation. Assignments need to allow for creativity, innovation and collaboration, otherwise students may not benefit from teamwork at all, and will resent working with others when they do not see a clear benefit above completing the project individually.

3) Give students a primer on how to work well in teams (this can either be done in class, as homework or as part of a tutorial with the GSIs). It can be eye-opening how little some students know about how to work successfully in teams (and this probably applies at the faculty level as well if we are honest!). The key to success is also knowing what the key strategies are for team success and armed with this information, students can capitalize on working in a diverse team.

Suggested References

http://teaching.berkeley.edu/teaching-mixed-leveldisparate-class

http://teaching.berkeley.edu/groupteam-based-learning   

http://teaching.berkeley.edu/groups

http://teaching.berkeley.edu/using-groups-classes-encouraging-study-groups   

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/2014/09/10/diversity-in-stem-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters/

http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/howscienceworks_01