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Interdisciplinary Team Research With Undergraduates

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.257.1 - 2.257.13



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Paper Authors

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Charles H. Dowding

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Joseph J. Biernacki

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2615

Interdisciplinary Team Research with Undergraduates Joseph J. Biernacki, Charles H. Dowding Department of Civil Engineering, Northwestern University

The Civil Engineering Department at Northwestern University is the site of a new National Science Foundation (NSF) interdisciplinary Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Research in industry is rarely conducted in isolation and, increasingly, academic research emphasizes interdisciplinary teams and collaborative efforts. To better educate our undergraduates for innovative problem solving, this novel program provides students with the interdisciplinary and cooperative research experience needed to be successful in either industrial research and engineering or academic positions. The experience focuses on civil engineering materials, although, the program recruits from all engineering and science disciplines as well as mathematics. Students may be placed with faculty mentors from their discipline or from another depending on the project, the student’s background and the faculty's expertise and interests. A typical three student/three faculty team may consist of two civil engineers, a chemical engineer, an environmental engineer, a structural engineer and a geotechnical engineer, creating a truly interdisciplinary working group. This program incorporates alternative team structures that represent the many forms which interdisciplinary research may take including peer groups working in similar areas of study, peer groups working in different areas of study and peer groups working on thematic problems with a common goal. Students engage in a course of study that introduces them to a wide spectrum of research topics relevant to the central theme of civil engineering materials. They also attend a seminar activity designed to coach them in skills ancillary to research including literature search, report writing, oral presentation and laboratory safety. Teams of three students are advised by three individual faculty mentors and three graduate coaches. Teams meet weekly to formally review and cross-fertilize their research projects with input from their peers. Questionnaires are used to evaluate the students' understanding of interdisciplinary research before and after the program in an effort to establish effectiveness of the training. The team research model will be compared to other models. The many challenges of organizing such a program will be discussed along with the benefits and rewards to both students and faculty.

Background The role of interdisciplinary and team related activities is becoming increasingly evident in research, engineering and other fields of practice and study. In a recent report titled, Where is Science Going, Hicks and Katz (1996) report that interdisciplinary interaction is among five increasing trends in modern research, which also include networking, internationalization, concentration of resources and application. Dahir (1993) summarizes a recent survey of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) that indicates that 80% of employers feel that being able to work in teams is an important attribute in new graduates while only 25% of the respondents felt that new graduates are adequately trained to work in teams. The engineering education community is, however, responding to both the movement towards interdisciplinary activities in research and the need to better prepare students to work in team environments. Masi (1995) reports that,

Dowding, C. H., & Biernacki, J. J. (1997, June), Interdisciplinary Team Research With Undergraduates Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6645

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