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REINVENTION - by Debbie Chachra

Building Professional Teams

Students need both non-technical and technical training.

There’s nothing “soft” about acquiring strong interpersonal skills. - Debbie ChachraThe importance of professional skills in the education of engineering students has gained increasing recognition. Chief among these skills is teamwork, which is essential to professional practice or, for that matter, accomplishing anything, whether building a Mars rover, raising children, or producing a novel. True, authors can hammer out the words solo, but they need an editor and publisher to put out the final product.

To give students “authentic” experiences in engineering practice, schools are building team projects and other group learning experiences into their
curricula — especially in the first year. Yet the term engineering educators commonly use to describe interpersonal and professional skills – “soft skills” – betrays a somewhat dismissive attitude. So does the structure of most engineering curricula, which scaffolds the technical development of students: Start with the basics, assess, move on to more complex material. Students must master the early prerequisites to move on and gradually become more proficient at difficult tasks.

But we often expect our students to work in teams without much guidance, and don’t scaffold the development of professional skills as we do for technical content. Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s easy to treat team projects the same way: Any group that accomplishes the end goal (building a functioning prototype, for example) is a “happy family,” with shared tasks and good communication. But individual members may have experienced something quite different.

Teamwork, particularly early in a student’s education, isn’t just about efficient division of labor. Consider the first-year design team that builds a great prototype. If everyone in the group took on the task he or she already knew how to do well – the computer whiz hitting the keyboard to design the parts, the lifelong builder hitting the university shop, and the strongest writer taking the lead on the report – the exercise is a failure. The point of an engineering course is not what students accomplish; it’s what they learn. If we’re focused on teaching them to act like professionals, it’s easy to lose sight of learning goals.

So what does it mean to help students develop teamwork proficiency the way we now build their technical skills? For a start, we must provide structured opportunities for communication that boost the group’s effectiveness. Research from MIT has shown that a team’s performance depends less on the brilliance of individual members than on how well the group works together. High-performing teams display a willingness to let everyone speak. The research also found that teams with females outperform all-male teams, in part because women tend to have better social skills.

In the first-year design course taught at Olin College, we ask students to decide what skills or knowledge they want to develop during their team project — creating a nature-inspired toy. We then have them share their learning objectives with their teammates and collectively create a project plan that addresses these goals. Partway through their project, students have an opportunity to provide feedback to one another, in a structured way. Both activities are intended to help teams work better together by uncovering and addressing shortcomings, a process students are more likely to encounter as professional engineers than the end-of-course peer assessments commonly used to evaluate each teammate’s contribution and assign grades.

Ultimately, we need to help students develop the interpersonal skills required to be an effective member of the group. Such tools will prove useful throughout their academic careers and beyond.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha.


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