The Benefits of Interdisciplinary Teamwork
By: Henry Gage
Published: September 6 2021
I had always thought that science was easiest done individually, no need to debate about opinions, or the best approach to a problem—I could trust myself to make good decisions and do effective research. I avoided collaboration where possible. Yet, over my time at the university I have realized that this is not the case. Quite opposite, in fact.
To me, science now means interdisciplinary group work and is at the core of my life as a student, researcher, and member of extracurricular organizations. In the academic sphere, I seek out feedback from my peers frequently and almost never work alone. As a researcher, I have worked with faculty in Earth Science, Climatology, Statistics, and Engineering all for research on the Hamilton Escarpment. As a member of a number of extracurricular organizations at the university, I can safely say that not one organization would be able to operate without collaboration. This year I worked with a number of peers to form an interdisciplinary group called the Climate Action Consultancy, which consists of over 30 students with diverse backgrounds in Engineering, Environmental Science, Commerce, Social Science, and more to provide free sustainability consulting in the community. The team is structured to maximize collaboration, with students divided into small consulting groups where everyone is in a different program to maximize the diversity of perspectives.
So what has caused me to enjoy and seek interdisciplinary collaboration? Here are the lessons I’ve learned throughout my group work experiences.
Diversity means enriching solutions: As human beings, we often have the tendency to believe that our perspectives are the most valid. Who can blame us? We form our perspectives from our own experiences, so it is difficult to imagine and empathize with others’ viewpoints. However, I have come to realize that diverse perspectives always yield more enriching solutions to problems. Take a class case study discussion as an example. During a discussion course I was TAing this summer, students were discussing water scarcity issues and potential solutions to minimize water consumption. One student had explained that water meters would be useful to make people in low-income countries aware of their spending and incentivize water savings. A second student who had lived in another country responded by explaining that in the past, they did not have access to piping and running tap water, meaning that all water was sourced from a well or purchased in bottles. A water meter would not be possible. This sparked an interesting discussion about how we can reduce water consumption in areas where it is not centrally supplied. The solutions the students developed were much more innovative and applicable than if each student had maintained their own individual opinions. I have observed similar discussions in many classes, in our organization, and especially in my role as a researcher, where many people working together achieve a higher level of productivity by contributing many ideas at once.
Connections and resources: Each of us has our own network of connections and resources which are at our disposal. When collaborating, group members can combine their networks to create a much bigger pool of resources that is often of benefit to the group. In the infancy of the Climate Action Consultancy, the executive team had exhausted its connections in the community to connect with stakeholders and individuals in the sustainability space who might be able to help us grow. Within days of our research team joining, we had members connecting the organization with restaurants, a law firm, local business owners, and even the United Nations. The power of a personal network can be immense when there are many individuals at the table. This same concept applies to academic work—each group member will have taken different courses and worked with different instructors, so has a separate knowledge base to contribute.
Feedback: So you have finished your interdisciplinary group work project. You have seen the benefits of refining ideas through discussion, diverse perspectives, and connections. Now what? An immense benefit of having worked in a group is feedback from peers. Whether you take a moment during a project to ask others how you are doing, or check in once you are finished, asking for feedback from others (and, in turn, providing feedback when desired) is a great way to grow as an individual and group member. In my opinion, the feedback I received from group members played the largest role in my improvement and enjoyment in interdisciplinary collaboration. It allowed me to realize that often, I was taking too active a role in discussions, and needed to be a stronger listener (and eventually causing me to realize the above two points!). Positive reinforcement is also an effective way to strengthen your team’s relationships and recognize the benefits of having each member in a team.
Skill Development: As I have alluded to in the previous point, collaboration drives skill development, be it improving open-mindedness in discussions, increasing time management skills to meet group deadlines, or becoming a better listener. I have found that group work encourages me to reflect on my role and participation. This is an important step in recognizing one’s weaknesses and strengths which is central to skill development.
So whether you are someone who loves collaboration, or someone who avoids it like the plague, next time you grumble about a group project remember that there are always benefits to working in a team, even if it is simply improving your patience!
When I entered my first year at McMaster, I was not an effective group worker. I had joined the Integrated Science program in an effort to improve my collaborative skills by engaging in frequent group work.