UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine being part of a team that works seamlessly together, completing the assigned project and accomplishing all delegated tasks along the way. Now, imagine being a member of a team that isn’t as cohesive, one that struggles to meet deadlines and is unable to complete the assigned project. It’s clear that, fundamentally, these two teams differ. But how, exactly, and what can be done to ensure that effective teaming happens?
To answer these questions, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Penn State will study the role team interactions have on engineering student teams’ performance during the design process.
Led by principal investigator Scarlett Miller, associate professor of engineering design and industrial engineering at Penn State University Park, the team has been awarded $349,792 from the National Science Foundation for “Longitudinal Exploration of Engineering Design Team Performance in Relation to Team Composition, Climate, and Communication Patterns.” The three-year project will investigate the make-up of student engineering teams and how a team’s structure and communication capabilities impact psychological safety, a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Kathryn Jablokow, professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering at Penn State Great Valley, and Susan Mohammed, professor of psychology at University Park, serve as co-principal investigators.
Research results will be used to develop a model that showcases the influence interpersonal risk-taking has on teams and projects during the engineering design process.
In a climate deemed psychologically safe, team members are comfortable with sharing ideas, because teammates treat mistakes with understanding and failures as learning tools rather than with condemnation. To date, most previous research on engineering design team communication and psychological safety focuses on a single design stage. The Penn State research team will expand previous research by exploring how psychological safety develops and how it is either maintained or how it declines during an engineering team’s lifetime.
“Establishing a psychologically safe climate is important because psychological safety has been shown to positively predictive key team outcomes, including task performance, creativity, information sharing, learning, work engagement and satisfaction,” Mohammed said. “These results have been found across multiple fields, including management, psychology and health care. Therefore, psychological safety has been a consistent, generalizable and multilevel predictor of numerous outcomes important to individuals, team and organizations.”
According to Miller, engineering organizations are becoming progressively more team-based because it is believed that teams generate better solutions to complex problems with their wider range of knowledge and expertise. Because of this, engineering is increasingly being taught as a team process in the educational system. However, little is known about how to help teach teaming effectively in engineering education.
“Much research in this space has focused on one-off measures of team performance during the design process. This lack of understanding is problematic because teams are dynamic entities by nature; when we represent teams as static entities, we cannot effectively train engineers to work in team environments,” Miller said. “Think peer reviews that often occur at the end of a project. While these ‘snap-shot’ methods allow us to understand what went well or didn’t go well on the team, it does not allow us to identify when to intervene or what type of intervention would be beneficial. Our research is geared at filling this void.”
Jablokow added that often students are placed in teams with little to no understanding of how they will interact and work with each other.
“We expect them to perform effectively with very little guidance on how to actually make teaming work along the way,” she said. “Team contracts and admonitions to ‘get along’ just aren’t enough.”
The researchers will also explore how engineering design team training should be executed and the types of training that are most effective. The findings will be shared with engineering educators and practitioners as a free collection of team-tested activities to study and improve teams. In industry, these results may also lead to improved team performance, lessening the number of company resources needed to complete projects.
“Solving complex engineering problems requires collaboration; it’s not just ‘nice to have,’ it’s essential,” Jablokow said. “When you improve team performance, you make the process of problem-solving more effective and more efficient, which translates to less time, lower costs and better solutions.”