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Training Undergraduates in Cross-Disciplinary Team Science

We have now entered into a new data driven age of scientific discovery, where intersections among scientific disciplines are on the increase and are melding various groups of researchers closer together. This is increasingly being referred to as “convergence” of the sciences. We are seeing an increase in the use of words such as “nuance” to ease out the subtleties between the disciplines, while terms such as “difference”, “distinction”, or “in contrast” continue to be used in less disciplinarily-integrated teams. On the practical side of this, students at every level are actively seeking guidelines for effective cross-disciplinary collaboration, and regularly approaching their mentors for advice on how to proceed with issues of team dynamics, conflict resolution, and problems with team leadership.

There are several resources for faculty training in team science (c.f. this list of links on the Team Science Toolkit), and there are for-credit courses on team work at various Schools of Business around the country. Although many principles of team dynamics, leadership and organization are not different between the business world and scientific academia, there are differences in the reward mechanisms, hierarchies, and general culture of the two enterprises that influence collaboration. However, there are hardly any examples of for-credit courses that specifically teach competencies for effective collaboration in the biomedical sciences. In fact, we only learned of a course on this topic, taught at the graduate level by Dr. Holly Falk- Krzesinski at Northwestern University in 2010, after we had already established and taught an undergraduate course addressing scientific collaboration that catered to science students.

The full-semester, 3-credit course is aimed at first year undergraduates in the sciences, but it can easily be adapted to students in other stages and arenas. The overarching objectives of the course are for the students to understand that contemporary scientific research is a cross-disciplinary arena, and to have the confidence and basic knowledge needed to work in cross-disciplinary teams in order to achieve project goals. It exposes students to the principles of team dynamics, organization, and leadership, specifically in the context of the joys and challenges that are faced when working within teams of highly motivated academic scientists. The course syllabus includes activities that are focused on critical evaluation and problem solving, and that encourage collaborative team work and leadership from within the team. We expect that inspiration from this course will lead participating students to actively seek cross-disciplinary interactions throughout the rest of their university life, and in their chosen careers. We therefore named this course U-Inspire.

U-Inspire Course Framework

When we were developing the materials for this course, this year's National Academies report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, had not yet been published. We therefore relied on the available Science of Team Science (SciTS) literature and our own experience and knowledge to come up with a framework for teaching this course. The course curriculum was thus formulated around the following question:

What does a scientist need to learn in order to join a team smoothly, lead research effectively, and collaborate with other groups successfully?

This approach yielded eight learning objectives, which we later renamed the Core Competencies of Team Science (Khuri and Wuchty, 2015):

  1. Identify Tuckman's stages of team dynamics and their iterative nature,
  2. Describe the importance of "Know Thyself, Know Thy People, Know Thy Stuff",
  3. Identify the different levels of trust and how they impact scientific achievement,
  4. Describe the issues of credit and acknowledgement in scientific collaboration,
  5. Define causes of and possible resolutions for commonly occurring conflicts in scientific teamwork,
  6. Define the roles of team members, leaders, and mentors in a scientific team,
  7. Describe the importance of culture, both academic and ethnic, in team performance, and
  8. Collaborate with someone of a different discipline on a pre-defined project.

U-Inspire Course Syllabus

There are no prerequisites for the course, and no assigned textbooks. All reading materials are provided as links to publications or websites that the students can use for their homework assignments. The course content is described in detail below, and the week by week syllabus is provided here.

The Three Golden Rules of Teamwork

The course begins with a detailed description of Tuckman's team stages: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. We highlight the importance of self-awareness, awareness of others, and domain expertise in smooth transitioning between the stages. As such, students are encouraged to think of the three golden rules of team work as being: Know Thyself, Know Thy People, and Know Thy Stuff. The decision to choose these three rules and put them in these words was based on the desire to have a quick take-home message that would stick with the students and become part of their general work ethic.

Students and faculty alike participate in exercises that explore their own strengths and weaknesses, both in terms of technical and interpersonal skill sets, and those of the other team members. Commonly used personality surveys and games are used to raise awareness of oneself and the other group members. The importance of preparing for meetings and delivering on expectations is introduced. Polymathy (many + learning) is presented as almost impossible to achieve in today’s highly specialized science. We coined the term Omadamathy (team + learning), to emphasize that today we need a team of different domain experts working together to achieve a deeper understanding of scientific questions.

Active discussions of these rules with the students who took this course in Fall 2014 led to further abstractions of the underlying concepts: understanding oneself was found to provide Energy, understanding the other team members was defined as Engagement, and "Know Thy Stuff" was perceived as Exploration. The dynamic, team-based, involvement of the students in identifying these concepts made for an excellent class atmosphere. Figure 1 lists some of the terms that these students felt were connected with the three rules. These concepts are being used in the current run of this course (Fall 2015), and current students are engaged in similar discussions.

Energy,Engagement,Exploration

Topics in the Theory and Practice of Team Science

Throughout the course, key topics are addressed and demonstrated through readings, discussions of real-life examples, and role-play scenarios. These literatures and topics include:

  • The SciTS literature and cross-disciplinary scientific discovery, with examples from the Human Genome Project and contemporary genomics groups.
  • The management sciences literature, particularly for the leadership and mentorship theory sessions. Here, role-playing scenarios were created based on our own experiences as scientists working in cross-disciplinary teams, and included situations where team members had to rescue a project because of a tyrant leader, all the way through to where an exemplary leader kept everyone on task and productive by organizing strategically timed seminars or extra-curricular activities for her team.
  • Theories relevant to scientific due credit, trust, and conflict resolution were presented. These topics are discussed using examples from:
  • The ethic of meeting and managing expectations is demonstrated mostly through the students' own experiences in the team projects.
  • Building bridges across disciplines is presented as an anthropological study of academic cultures. This we believe is probably worthy of its own blog once our methods and ideas on the subject mature further.

Field Trips

Students are taken on visits to three cross-disciplinary labs and centers within the University of Miami, to demonstrate what is possible with Omadamathy, and to bring to life discussions on the competencies above, particularly those relating to leadership, expectations, due credit, and disciplinary culture.

For example, the first field trip this semester was to the Center for Computational Science, where students heard from seven researchers working on topics as varied as drug discovery, city mapping, music engineering, and climate change. They saw how the Advanced Computing and Software Engineering cores were able to support these cross-disciplinary research focus groups. The second field trip, to take place later this semester, will be to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, where neuroscientists are working with engineers, surgeons, clinical trial administrators, computer scientists, and colleagues from many other disciplines. The third field trip to take place toward the end of this semester will be to a zebrafish laboratory that is part of NIH Brain Initiative.

U-Inspire Course Assessment

A full 40% of students' assessment is based on an individually-graded team-based project, ideally performed in teams of 4 or 5 students, divided into four grades of 10% each, as follows:

  • 10% for team member contribution, in terms of share of the work, as evidenced by a statement of authors’ contributions. The question here is whether the team member contributed fairly to the work load.
  • 10% for trustworthy delivery of the work, as reported by the other team members. The question here is whether the team member delivered on time and to the same standard as everyone else on the team.
  • 10% for doing something that helps with team identity (e.g., cohesion, communication, management). This was assessed by asking the team to make a note in their report of which member helped to resolve a conflict, or organized a team outing, or was the one who contacted everyone to remind them of the meeting time and place, or kept everyone on task, or managed a communication resource such as set up the group chat.
  • 10% for the actual content of the project and its presentation. The question here is whether the team was able to come up with a solid project at the end that they could present together, cohesively.

Another 40% of the assessment is based on written reports divided into 10% each for 4 homework assignments that focus on interpretation of reading material, synthesis of discussion points, and reports on the field trips.

This being an undergraduate course, 10% of the grade is based simply on attendance. In order to encourage uninhibited involvement in class discussion and activities, another 10% of the grade is for active participation.

Discussion

At the SciTS 2015 Conference, there were exciting discussions on the convergence of science and its impact on the academic system as we know it. The conference sessions on education and training highlighted valuable workshops, surveys, and programs that were aimed at training particular groups of scientists in cross-disciplinary team science. Several speakers underlined the crucial need to encourage students to be collaboration-ready, and to have a cross-disciplinary orientation (Stokols, 2015).

There are several academic programs around the US that have built biomedical curricula around a cross-disciplinary learning experience, such that participants are exposed to numerous disciplines and approaches. These include programs in subjects such as neuroscience (Modo and Kinchin, 2011), clinical and translational science (Robinson et al., 2013) and behavioral oncology (McDaniel et al., 2008), among others. There are excellent articles that discuss the challenges involved in creating cross-disciplinary curricula for professional training (for example, Ekmekci et al., 2014). However, none that we know of describes a full semester course on team development and team dynamics targeting science undergraduates. The U-Inspire course was very well received by students and faculty alike in its first year. It is being repeated again this fall, and we look forward to the course evolving as the needs of our students evolve and the SciTS literature grows.

References

  • Bennett LM, Gadlin H, Levine-Finley S, 2010. Collaboration and Team Science, a Field Guide. NIH p.2.
  • Committee on the Science of Team Science, Cooke, N., Hilton, M., Editors, 2015.
  • Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; Apr 24.
  • Ekmekci O, Lotrecchiano GR, Corcoran M, 2014. The Devil is in the (Mis) Alignment: Developing Curriculum for Clinical and Translational Science Professionals. Journal of Translation Medicine and Epidemiology, 2(2): 1029.
  • Khuri S and Wuchty S, 2015. Core Competencies in Team Science. Oral presentation at the SciTS Conference, Bethesda, MD. June 2-5, 2015.
  • McDaniel A, Champion V, Kroenke K, 2008. A transdisciplinary training program for behavioral oncology and cancer control scientists. Nursing Outlook, 56, 3:123-131.
  • Modo M, Kinchin I, 2011. A Conceptual Framework for Interdisciplinary Curriculum Design: A Case Study in Neuroscience. The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education.10(1):A71-79.
  • Robinson G, Erlen J, Rubio D, Kapoor W, Poloyac S, 2013. Development, implementation, and evaluation of an interprofessional course in translational research. Clinical and Translational Science. 6(1):50-56.
  • Stokols D, Hall KL, Taylor BK, Moser RP, 2008. The Science of Team Science, Overview of the Field and Introduction to the Supplement. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35(2S): S78-S89.
  • Stokols D, 2015. Oral presentation at the SciTS Conference, Bethesda, MD. June 2-5, 2015.

About the Authors

Sawsan Khuri, PhD, is the Director of Engagement at the Center for Computational Science, and an Assistant Research Professor in Computer Science at the University of Miami.
Stefan Wuchty, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Miami.

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If you are interested in contributing a column, please contact Amanda Vogel at Amanda.Vogel@nih.gov.

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