Thoughts on Collaboration in Engineering: by Dr. Linda Franzoni

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Dr. Linda P. Franzoni is an Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and a Professor of the Practice of Mechanical Engineering in the Pratt School of Engineering.  In this post, Dr. Franzoni shares her thoughts on collaboration through her experience as an engineering student.  Collaboration is a noted dimension in the Duke University Leadership Framework.     

 The dictionary defines collaboration as working together toward a shared goal (especially an intellectual endeavor).  For students working on projects, collaboration can bring about solutions to problems that no individual working alone could ever have imagined.  For solving homework problems, students working in groups are often more successful than students working alone.  Many years ago, I was visiting MIT and saw a cartoon on a bulletin board.  The visual was a maze with mice looking for cheese (the prize that was hidden in the maze) - - however, in one case there happened to be a pair of mice with one mouse riding on the shoulders of the other mouse.  The elevated mouse could see over the walls of the maze and easily spot the cheese.  The caption read:  Collaboration or Cheating? Is this a trick question?  What is the answer?   For the average student, particularly in engineering where students are encouraged to work in groups, where lab experiments are usually performed by pairs of students, and where design projects require teamwork, the lines between collaboration and cheating are often blurred.  What does it mean to turn in your own lab report when the data that you have is identical to your lab partners?  Why not turn in the same lab report for both of you?  When a group of students work together on a homework set, whether or not the solutions are available online, what does it mean to turn in “your individual work?”   Students do not understand why professors want to see the “individual” work of a student.  What is the point? My personal experience as an engineering student - a (very) long time ago - is working together (collaborating) on homework problems created a false sense of security for me.  I gathered with classmates to go over homework problems that we had each tried to solve separately.  It became easy for me not to struggle over problems that I did not “get” right away because I knew that in a few hours or so the solution would be revealed to me by one of my classmates who would have seen the seemingly hidden trick in the problem.  I found myself working out only the problems that I knew how to do and leaving the more difficult (I called them the “trick questions”) for the less impatient classmates to solve.  What I did not realize at the time was that I was shortchanging myself by not figuring out the more difficult problems.  When test time came, I couldn’t understand why I did so poorly because “I totally understood the homework.” Years later, while still a student – for circumstances that I won’t go into – I no longer lived on campus and did not have any study groups.  Instead, school was an hour and a half commute on a Trailways bus.  Therefore, I was forced to do everything myself.  That was the year that I suddenly really understood the homework!   By the way, because I was bored during the hour and a half commute on the bus, I actually read my textbooks – perhaps that also made a big difference.  Anyway, my test grades improved - but more importantly, I walked out of my tests with the self-confidence that I had “aced” the test because I knew that I really did understand the material.  Looking back, I wish that I had not been so dependent on my study group in the early days of college (or maybe I should say, so intellectually lazy). Collaboration:  yes, it can be a good thing.  It does bring about solutions to design problems that could otherwise not be attained.  It is a necessary component of teamwork particularly for large projects.  The biggest reward from collaboration lies in getting feedback from fellow group members and in the exchange of interesting ideas, thoughts and hypotheses that would otherwise not have occurred to you.  The largest danger from collaboration is that you may not develop your own individual skills and knowledge base.  If that occurs, not only will you be hurting yourself, but you will not be bringing your “A game” to the group and that detracts from the success of the group and makes people less excited to work with you in the future.  So by all means, collaborate and be sure that you are coming to it from a position of strength and not weakness. Along with this blog post, consider the reflective questions below when thinking about your experiences with collaboration.   â€¢ What are the ways you engage collaboration?  What skills and experiences do you contribute when working with others? â€¢ Where are the places you see collaboration happening? Does collaboration look different depending on the environment in which it is taking place?  If yes, in what ways?  If no, why not?   â€¢ What are the ways in which collaboration can impact personal integrity?  How others view your character?• Reflect on your experiences and think about collaboration(s) that were positively impactful and those that were unsuccessful.  What did you appreciate about the positive ones?  What challenges did you face with those that were unsuccessful? â€¢ What are ways in which you can collaborate without becoming “dependent” on those you are working with?• What can we learn from collaboration?  What impact can collaboration have on our ability to appreciate difference and understand multiple perspectives? 
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