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Dr. Mary Kay Camarillo: Communicating civil engineering student success

Mar 14, 2019

After reading "Why Do So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field?" and learning that negative experiences with peers—especially in group work—are a significant contributor, Dr. Mary Kay Camarillo, associate professor of civil engineering, decided to do something about it.

She added the capacity to work effectively in teams as a specific learning outcome in the senior capstone course in civil engineering. This entailed deliberate scaffolding of team-building practices. She began with a framework inspired by Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams, co-authored by Richard Felder, an author highly revered in engineering for his advice on active learning. See, for example, "Active Learning with Richard Felder". 

In addition to the article's recommended tools to encourage teamwork, Professor Camarillo added a few more components to the senior design class. Early on, she distributed a policy statement articulating the desired outcomes and expectations for the student design teams. She also emphasized a common challenge faced by student teams: Coping with Hitchhikers and Couch Potatoes on teams. Following this foundational framing, student teams then needed to come up with a set of team rules for how they would work together. Understanding that such agreements can be forgotten over time or can, of necessity, drift from their original intentions, Professor Camarillo asks her students to revisit these rules throughout the semester, reflect on group processes, and rewrite new versions as tasks became more defined and complex. She built upon the long-standing practice of weekly meetings with the instructor to include a personal check-in and discussion about workload distribution and self-care. Through these meetings, she could discover ways students were struggling to work together and independently. This allowed her to step in and correct problems proactively, as they emerged before they escalated into disaster. She also continued other long-standing practices: peer evaluations (three/semester), time sheets, and weekly blog updates.  

What was truly novel was direct instruction on interpersonal communication practices, using the Nonviolent Communication Process. From this, students are able to generate a series of scripts for conflict-management that can help facilitate conversation and improve intra-group efficacy. Finally, she made the entire process meaningful by emphasizing professional and independent learning goals throughout the semester and reinforcing these through signature assignments.  

The results? While teams are never without conflict, there was a generally noticeable difference in students' confidence levels and their ability to resolve conflicts independently. Significantly, last year, at the end-of-semester project showcase, evaluated by external professionals in the field, the one all-woman team won the design competition. Judges commented that the cohesiveness of communication from the entire team was one of their deciding factors. Thus, investment in proactive framing, regular monitoring, iterative revision, and direct instruction on communication can make for effective student teams — and might even have a lasting impact on our graduates' future professional resilience and success.

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