Research explores key to collaboration

By Clare Budin, Staff Writer

Anyone who has worked in a group may have experienced moments when the clashing of ideas, schedules and perspectives threaten to derail the project.

William Barley and Marshall Poole, professors in LAS, are seeking solutions to this widespread problem with the research project “EAGER Germination: Crystallizing Transformative Ideas by Seeding a Diverse Knowledge Community,” supported by the National Science Foundation.

With the help of co-investigators from several minority institutions, the University researchers set up cohorts of four members hailed from land-grant institutions, four from tribal colleges, four from historically black colleges and universities and four from Hispanic institutions.

“For each of our cohorts, we recruited 16 scientists and researchers for radical diversity in terms of disciplines, racial and ethnic background, as well as the constituent communities the organizations the researchers come from represent,” Barley said.

For the researchers and co-investigators, this additional method of inclusion acted as another measure to show how diversity can present a group with unique opportunities and challenges, as well as a way to point out a lack of demographic representation in research overall.

“Some findings during the course of our project point to barriers for participation in national-level research institutions for minorities,” Poole said. “I think they really want change, and that’s one reason they funded our project, I suspect, because it’s one thing to want it; it’s another thing to know how to do it. It will take some time, and it’ll take some resources.”

Barley and Poole received funding to support three gathered cohorts focused on different challenges facing society. Two of these groups have already wrapped up their research with the lessons and guidance of the research team, with recruitment for the third cohort still in process.

Over the course of several months and three different workshops, Poole and Barley’s exercises and discussions within the individual cohorts transformed a group of polarized strangers into co-researchers cohesive enough to conduct work from different institutions.

“We’re trying to take what we know about the science of diversity and apply it to enable researchers from different disciplines to come up with cool and innovative solutions that we know require input from multiple perspectives,” Barley said.

Barley and Poole discovered the clash of different personalities and experiences can make it difficult to unite on a strategy or goal for a project.

Barley said people may agree on their intentions to solve a problem, but the problem might mean very different things to different people.

“For example, one engineer might focus on designing the safest car possible, and another engineer is focused on making the most fuel-efficient car,” he said. “Both of those engineers will agree that they want to build the best car possible, but what best means is something different to each of them.”

Poole said the first step to finding a shared language among researchers is simply to communicate in a shared space.

“We also have alternating currents of divergence and convergence,” Poole said. “Divergence is where you get a lot of different ideas and points of view on the table, and convergence would be where you sort through them and find which ones are compatible with most of the people that are involved in the project.”

Poole said it can be tempting to give up on this first vital step due to impatience or frustration, but patience is key for later success.

“Often, people try to rush things and just go through this process one time, but we designed the process so that there were alternating periods over several days in the workshop and through the rest of the workshop,” Poole said. “It takes time for people to really get what other people are saying.”

The first group focused on the issue of climate change resilience, the second studied worldwide food and water security and the third will focus on sustainable energy innovation, Barley said.

“The idea is that these are issues that are pretty well agreed upon and identified as being things that we need to be concerned about as a society,” he said. “Policy makers and scientists have agreed that coming up with solutions is going to require collaboration from researchers with multiple disciplinary perspectives.”

Poole shared Barley’s view of interdisciplinary research and its potential for creativity and original ideas.

“It leads to extremely creative combinations of ideas that they might not find otherwise,” Poole said.Hallie Workman, doctoral candidate in LAS, said encountering stark differences in views and methods during group projects was common in her undergraduate years.

“My senior capstone project was putting together a communication plan for a domestic abuse shelter,” Workman said. “We had a few communication majors and a few business majors in our group, and they had a different working style that often involved communicating through phone rather than in person, which made things very difficult.”

Rather than let this roadblock stop the project in its tracks, Workman was determined to come to a mutual understanding and the two groups were eventually able to mold a satisfactory schedule.

“Through that project, I learned to not just listen, but to truly communicate and work with the group, and the business students ended up killing that project,” Workman said.

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