Spanning Boundaries and Sharing Knowledge:  How Research and Service in Team Science can Improve STEM Education 

By Stephen Fiore, coPI, University of Central Florida

Learn more about the IGE project discussed in this article

Team Science Training for Coastal Ocean & Estuarine STEM Graduate Students

Solving today’s most challenging scientific and societal problems requires innovative, integrated breakthroughs and novel solutions that transcend individual disciplines, reaching a deeper level of knowledge integration. To help accomplish this, we are seeing communities of scholars working across academic disciplines and institutional boundaries to share knowledge. This occurs in both the practice of science as well as in scholarly service to our professions. The IGE Hub represents one such initiative devised to bring together innovations in education awardees. The goal is to help them share their findings and learn from each other, enabling development of a community of scholars to improve STEM graduate education.

But these rapid advancements in science and technology, driven by increased specialization, international initiatives, and enhanced computing capabilities, present both opportunities and obstacles in harnessing scientific knowledge and intellectual talent. Further, technological progress now allows scientists to collaborate virtually in unprecedented ways, while also introducing new challenges for science.

To adapt to these evolving trends, it is essential to augment the way research is conducted and supported. A critical component is team science (TS), a collaborative approach to research requiring the integration of social, organizational, and technological factors. While TS holds great potential for accelerating advances in knowledge, collaboration in science is challenging, necessitating empirically derived approaches to help fully harness its potential for science.

In response to this need, the Science of Team Science (SciTS) emerged as an interdisciplinary field in the early 2000s, with a goal of providing evidence-based solutions for successful team science. This field has hosted an annual conference since 2010 and founded the International Network of the Science of Team Science (INSciTS) in 2018 to legitimize the science and the service being conducted by its members. INSciTS is dedicated to building a comprehensive understanding of the interconnected factors that impact science teams, encompassing everything from science policy and organizational dynamics to the psychological aspects of science and scientists. This field aims to adapt and incorporate theories, concepts, and methods from relevant disciplines and areas within the scholarly study of science.

Supporters of TS strive to develop strategies that align with the evolving demands of science, yet they encounter challenges in studying and translating the best approaches to support TS. One of the more significant gaps in our knowledge is effective team science training, particularly in preparing the next generation of scientists capable of thriving in this increasingly intricate knowledge ecosystem. In this context, I next describe a project designed to help redress this gap by bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scientists to study learning and training in transdisciplinary graduate student teams.

Our IGE project, Team Science Training for Coastal Ocean & Estuarine STEM Graduate Students, is on transdisciplinary teamwork focused on coastal resilience in the Chesapeake Bay region of the USA. Awarded to the Virginia Sea Grant, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the University of Virginia, in collaboration with the University of Central Florida, and Virginia Commonwealth University, the project brings together a team of scholars focused on improving problem solving and teamwork in science.

Drawing from the team science literature, we take a complementary approach by addressing competencies in both taskwork and teamwork. In particular, effective teams, including those comprised of scientists, must excel in both taskwork and teamwork. Taskwork encompasses the skills required to achieve goals and fulfill objectives, essentially the practical aspects of scientific work. This includes understanding relevant theories, executing appropriate methods within a given scientific domain, and proficiency in data collection and analysis. Teamwork pertains to the cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral elements essential for team members to function effectively as part of an interdependent team. Cognitive factors involve knowledge about fellow team members, attitudinal factors encompass emotional aspects arising from collaboration, and behavioral factors encompass skills for interaction. While science teams might have the potential to excel in taskwork, they will fail without proficiency in teamwork.

To address a need for developing competencies in teamwork and taskwork, for our grant, faculty coaches were recruited to guide a set of diverse graduate students from the natural and physical sciences, coastal, marine and environmental sciences, engineering, design, and social and economic sciences. These students were recruited from around the country, and motivated by a shared interest in studying coastal resilience. We developed and tested different types of transdisciplinary pedagogies in a series of workshops. For the teamwork training, students were introduced to an integrated set of team science fundamentals. For the taskwork training, our emphasis was on collaborative knowledge building for solving complex transdisciplinary problems. For this, we emphasized the development of conceptual models capable of capturing system level problems while integrating diverse disciplinary perspectives. To unite these, and foster individual and team learning, an intervention focusing on reflection in teamwork processes was used to ensure students monitor both the task of transdisciplinary problem solving, as well as the teamwork processes engaged while collaborating. Specifically, to promote learning students had to reflect on their teamwork and taskwork.

Grounding the real-world taskwork for our project, students were provided with cases studies co-developed by members of the grant team and coastal community partners (e.g., municipalities, NGOs). This community-based climate-resilience project enabled students to practice team science research and use reflective practices to improve their competencies with various stakeholders. Students worked with each other, their coaches, and stakeholders to develop a transdisciplinary conceptual framework to help address the case study they were given. This framework guided development of a written report outlining the transdisciplinary research needed to understand and address their cases. For the teamwork component, during their collaborations, assessment of team processes, along with reflections on teamwork and taskwork, were used to highlight areas of collaboration needing improvement.

Teamwork assessment was based upon the CARE model, developed by Dr. Thomas O’Neill, Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary. This includes a measurement suite designed to assess attitudes, behaviors, and cognition within teams, allowing us to study collaboration in teams and how it changed over the course of our training. CARE stands for “Communicate, Adapt, Relate, and Educate”, providing a way to dig deeply into learning and collaboration within our teams (e.g., sharing expertise; integrating opposing perspectives; healthy debate and idea exchange). Following their collaborative problem solving, students filled out the survey, assessing each component of the CARE model. Reports, containing their team’s aggregated responses, were sent to each team member, graphically illustrating their self- and peer-assessment. Each team was asked to discuss the feedback as well as articulate a plan for improving future interactions. Their feedback reflections, and plans for improvement were captured with an online form.

To understand student teamwork, we examined how self-, and peer-assessments related to the feedback they generated, how this changed over the months of their collaborations, and how this was associated with their research reports. To help examine their taskwork, we recruited an interdisciplinary panel of subject-matter experts in coastal resilience to evaluate the student research reports and conceptual frameworks. These were evaluated along dimensions that included coherence of the framework and transdisciplinary integration of research ideas. From the standpoint of self-perceptions, our results show that students perceive an improvement in their collaborative competences. More importantly, perceptions of teamwork competence correlated with subject matter evaluations of their research reports.

In short, by bringing together students from different disciplines around a compelling scientific and societal problem, providing them with activities that foster knowledge integration, while also providing them with coaching and feedback on their teamwork, we are able to build their transdisciplinary team competencies. This IGE grant represents an important addition to a growing empirical base for the science of team science. Further, it is a critical part of the IGE portfolio in that it specifically addresses collaboration and teamwork, a crucial 21st century competence for all STEM disciplines.

Developing the next generation of STEM professionals is increasingly important as researchers in academia, industry, and government are addressing significant scientific and societal problems. Focusing on a blend of real world needs while seeking fundamental knowledge, these problems create a need for transdisciplinary teams. This requires researchers share and integrate knowledge from a wide array of disciplines while also effectively collaborating with a diverse team. However, achieving such integration through teamwork is challenging due to cognitive and collaborative dynamics that can arise when interacting on complex problems. What is required is not only research adapting theory and methods from the cognitive, social, and organizational sciences, but also boundary spanning organizations that can help share findings in support transdisciplinary science. The IGE Hub is well positioned to help contribute to this knowledge base and members of this community are encouraged to broaden their participation and offer insights and expertise to further our understanding of teamwork in science. The IGE program is developing the kinds of innovative changes to graduate education that will help prepare students to address the most challenging scientific and societal problems. We hope to see more research that includes the science of team science, because both require innovative breakthroughs and novel solutions that transcend individual disciplines, reaching a deeper level of knowledge integration. The IGE Hub addresses the need to of developing the next generation of STEM professionals, and by working with the SciTS community, we can collectively help researchers in academia, industry, and government address significant scientific and societal problems.