Team problem-solving in an integrated capstone course

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These competencies are explicitly fostered and described in Competence View.
These competencies are fostered in this course but are not explicitly described in Competence View. Please contact the responsible person for further information. Competencies in grey are fostered in this course but are generally not the focus of Competence View, which focusses on cross-disciplinary competencies.

Students working effectively in teams to meet a deadline, solving a complex interdisciplinary problem that has multiple possible solutions, and defending their solution to other teams, this is what we seek to foster every autumn Tuesday morning between 8:15 and 12:00 in the Integrated Earth System II course, the capstone for third year Bachelor's students in the Earth Science Major.
This capstone course is designed so that students learn to combine the skills and knowledge from diverse disciplines to solve more complex problems from an integrated perspective. But the course is run to push students to strengthen key transversal competencies in teamwork, adaptability, and critical thinking.

Students walk into the lecture hall at 8:15 and the day’s problem meets them as the title slide on the Powerpoint screen. Most days, we remain for the first 45 minutes in the lecture hall for an introduction to the key question or problem that the students are going to try to solve: what the key dilemma/problem, what are the relevant processes and concepts, and what are the tools that students need to apply to address this question. The most important part of the day is the student work. For that, we move to a classroom with 8 long tables where teams of 5 students sit together around a table to devise solutions to the problem over the next 100 minutes. The team must finish its solution, and post it, by 11:00. Then, after a short break, the remaining class period is used for teams to evaluate other solutions and discuss them as a class. After the class period, each team will produce a short written synthesis with figures to describe their process and solution.

How the design of the problems promotes student interdependence and teamwork

Each week, the problems always require students to combine knowledge from several earth science disciplines in a way they had not previously, and to implement systems thinking – working out the interactions of multiple processes, feedbacks, and thresholds. Nearly all weeks, the problems are open-ended or do not have one single correct solution. The problems therefore land students in the middle of unfamiliar scientific territory and require them to think, reason, try, discuss, revise.

The core teamwork in the 100 minute work session

For each team, this is an intense period of thinking, discussing, drawing of explaining by the students this is really with a hard synthesis of ideas happens and it’s also where the core teamwork happens. The time pressure of having to present a result to the class after only 100 minutes of work is one of the most important drivers of effective full team collaboration. There simply is not enough time to get a deep and robust solution to the problem if only one or two members of the team are working on it.

Also the problems have enough complexity and enough uncertainty that usually no one student has the confidence and security to lay out a solution independently. The style of what they’re asked to do is often so different from what they’ve done before, that the newness and resulting initial uncertainty and feeling of insecurity, leads the students to really want to discuss it to clarify their thinking and their navigation towards a solution. If they would routinely just solving basic problems that didn’t require this critical thinking and complexity there might be a greater risk of one person who thinks fast just going on and doing it and the others looking by. The choice of complexity of problems and in our case often open-ended problems is an important part also of what motivates the students to “ need” each other.

The challenge for the instructors and the leaders is to know how much intervention to make during this teamwork.. Our main role in this time is to walk around to overhear what the groups are saying and ask why they’re doing things so that they are making some checks on their own reasoning, or ask specific questions that push the students to think again about their approach. Towards the end, the instructor’s role is also to remind this the teams of the time pressure and the need to finalize the group solution even though the product is not perfect. This is another asset of the finite time to solve the problem – it forces students to overcome the the procrastination that arises when something is new difficult and students are unsure. here’s a saying that we “ cannot let perfection be the enemy of progress” . The time pressure forces progress to happen without too much stress about perfection.

Despite this being the digital age, most of the teamwork is centered around big flipchart papers that we hang on the wall as posters for the final wrap-up and discussion. Using colored markers and big pieces of paper have two key benefits for the kind of teamwork and performance that were looking for in this class. The first is that the students focus most on concepts and less on special effects and perfections – it gets them out of the perfection trap and onto the progress ramp and lets the brainstorming, ideas phase be a team process. More importantly it’s a scale that five people sitting around the table can actually all actively participate in and to make. In most cases the exercises require students filling out at least two different poster papers with different things. It’s very effective for five people to all be working at the same time on to large poster papers, and in fact it’s almost impossible for the project to get done if only one person is holding the markers. Probably there are digital solutions – like large smart boards – but we lack a large number of classrooms with multiple devices like that for simultaneous work by multiple teams. Fortunately, the old-fashioned paper and markers are a pretty good universally available substrate for collaboration.

Some examples of open-ended questions are teams solving
One of my favorite early semester exercises is an open ended solution to a problem of varying the earth’s greenhouse effect through plate tectonics. After an introduction to tectonic and surface earth processes that serve as sources and sinks of CO2 to the atmosphere, and various positive and negative feedbacks, each team is randomly assigned to design a plate tectonic configuration of the earth that would either lead to maximum atmospheric CO2 or minimum atmospheric CO2. Each team will produce a map of their solution, using a set of standard symbols for plate boundaries and settings, and following a set of “realitiy checks” like total plate boundary length and ocean/land area.

Another example later in the semester, the students needed to design the eruption of a large volcanic province, in such a way that it would produce the most extreme and widespread mass extinctions on the earth. The students had to contemplate what positive and negative feedbacks could come into play that could moderate or accentuate that initial trigger. Most importantly, I told them that they could invent a story and that would be something a Hollywood scriptwriter could do, but because we were scientists, we wanted there to be some evidence that their story had happened. So the students had to also devise what a “geological record” of what evidence this event and feedbacks could leave in the the types of sediments and geochemistry of the sediments from that time. Their task was then to produce a map of where the eruption would happen, a flowchart of the trigger and feedback chain and how it would lead to extinctions, and sedimentary column showing the “indicators” of different parts of this process.

The challenge of wrapping up the problem solving period and reintegrating the whole class

The first year I taught the course, one of the biggest challenges for me was orchestrating an effective dialogue and discussion in the last part of the session to bring everything together and have the teams learn from each other. There are several barriers to having a great discussion at at the end, one of which is that the students really are intellectually tired after 100 minutes of intense teamwork. A 15 minute breakt helps but is not enough. The first year, I had each team explaining their output to the class, and I was not satisfied with how that worked. I found that only one or two team members would be explaining and the others would be semi-alert, but most importantly the teams who were not presented presenting were not engaged in the process while other teams explained. So the next year, I designed deliberate strategies for the discussion and wrap up that required each team to formulate and communicate an opinion about the work of the other teams, serving as independent evaluators/reviewers”. This mandated that they spend time looking at and thinking about the different solutions reached by other teams.
For example, in the problem where each team had to design a tectonic map of the world that would lead to either maximum or minimum CO2 in the atmosphere, I told each team NOT to label their map with any textual indication of whether it was high or low CO2. Then, in the final part of the class, each team had to walk around and look at two maps made by other teams. They would evaluate each map, and based on the processes that they could see evident in this map, determine whether it should be a high CO2 world or low CO2 world. Finally, these two “evaluating” teams would describe what they concluded about each map, and then the team that generated the map would respond. At the end we could discuss similarities and differences among the maps that sought to simulate the same condition (what is common to all the high CO2 maps, etc). This was a more successful discussion approach, because it required an evaluation role of every team, it required them to analyze what another group had done and to compare it to their own solution.

Similarly, for the problem of volcanic eruption leading to extinction, each team initially posted only their map and their geological record, but not their flowchart of the processes. During the discussion, two evaluating teams would analyze the map and geological record, and attempt to infer what processes had occurred and judge the severity of expected mass extinction. Finally, the evaluating teams would describe to the class what they inferred from the map and record, and the team that produced the map would reveal their flowchart with their intended series of processes. This led to discussion of what they had or had not conveyed or recorded correctly, or what they could have done more clearly. This also led to deeper and more meaningful discussion and more complete engagement.

How does the 45 minute intro lecture work:

This is often a fast tour and the first time diverse concepts (from geophysics to weather to ocean chemistry) are applied together. Because there is a lot of information, it is on clear powerpoint slides which are available to students immediate after the lecture. To help students organize this material during the lecture for later use, they are often given a handout table with the most useful structure for taking notes that will help them quickly access the information they will need to use in the workperiod to solve the problem. The geography of the room seems to set the expectations and reaction of students. When this intro is done in the lecture hall, students seem attentive. When it is done in the work room with students at tables, they seem less focused, and potenitally more impatient to get started on the task.

Self-designed, self-run teams

Before the semester starts, students are asked to self-organize a team of 5 students, with whom they will work in and out of class, for the entire semester. Students are choosing their own teams because a significant portion of the grade in the course is based on team solutions. Therefore teams are encouraged to work with people of similar degree of motivation and investment, while also balancing complementary expertise (for example, diverse focus areas in the Bachelor’s program). Teams are responsible for submitting 5 graded assignments, and a different team member must serve as the „coordinating author“ for each report, a requirement that helps encourage even distribution of responsibility. Team-policing of participation is mandated. Team members receive a nonzero grade only if they are listed as authors on the submission; and the team has no obligation to list as an author, any team member who has not contributed fairly to the report. Thus the team itself penalizes absentee members.

Are all team members collaborating?

The teams self organize, self police, and are generally together very successful. When I see one student sitting apart, potentially attending something unrelated to the class activity, I simply ask: what is your role in the team? If they acknowledged not working on the problem, I would remind them that the goal is to get the problem solved during class period efficiently, to limit the time required outside of class, but that required full effort during the work period, and that the team expected everyone to contribute.

Because of the intense teamwork during that in class work block, there’s already a foundation for a strong shared team responsibility for the follow-up to the class, which is a brief written synthesis in text and figures of the solution to the problem. This written synthesis is the graded element of the class. The team members alternate having responsibility to serve as the “ coordinating author” of this output (responsible for uploading it on moodle) with the other team members sign as co-authors. So if we have 10 syntheses each student will be coordinating author for two of those. In an ideal case they meet and discuss it together and generate it together. It is of course possible that the teams run in complete delegation mode – that is, once they leave class that week only the coordinating author writes the text and the other students have little input. But even in the worst case of full delegation, the other students have to accept the result in their grade of not participating in something that might not be up to their standards.

Flexibility and adaptability

The way we run this course requires students to learn to be adaptable and flexible because they have to take on multiple roles in the course of a single class period. From notetaker and assimilator of new tools and ideas, to problem solver producing an output solution, to an evaluator interpreting the result of another group. Also working under time pressure requires them to be very adaptable and, asking team colleagues every 10 to 15 minutes: okay what do we do next, what can I do.., what can you do…

Critical thinking components

The course develops critical thinking capacities because the students are given open-ended, complex and multidisciplinary problems to solve. They need to develop their own solutions and be able to explain and justify why they think those solutions would work right.

Future idea:

In the future, I would also like to engage the teams in thinking about their own team collaboration process. For example in early weeks, I will ask each team for a short self evaluation of how the the team process has gone, what do they think was most successful, what is one goal they have for teamwork in future classes. Then, in later weeks I would ask them to evaluate, whether they implemented these goals and whether it had an effect, and if there were other ways the teamwork skills evolved.

Course Description

Integrated Earth Systems II
The surface Earth is often thought of as a set of interacting systems, often with feedbacks between them. These interacting systems control the tectonics, geomorphology, climate, and biology of the surface Earth. To fully understand the nature of the Earth System, including the controls on its past evolution, its present state, and its future, an integrated perspective is required.
To introduce students to an integrated view of the surface Earth, uniting perspectives from different disciplines of the earth sciences.

To encourage students in the critical analysis of data and models in Earth Science.
BSc semester 5
4 class contact hours plus 1 small group tutorial weekly
30-40 students
all Earth Science BSc students in the 5th semester
required capstone course
Teaching Power:
Graded semester performance