Teaching Teamwork

Our goal is to teach electronics students how to work effectively in teams, and by monitoring and analyzing their actions to find ways to assess the contribution of each team member. Students will work on realistic simulations of electronic components and circuit boards that are linked together over the Internet. The project addresses the mismatch between the value of teamwork in the modern STEM workplace and the difficulty of teaching students to collaborate while also evaluating them individually.

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View and run the three resistor challenge alone or as part of a team.
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Collaboration and communication are critically important skills in the 21st century STEM workforce, yet schools and colleges continue to reward students primarily for their individual test-taking ability. In part this is because assigning grades to individual team members is so difficult. With our partners Tidewater Community College, CORD and ETS, we are teaching electronics students how to work effectively in teams, both face-to-face and remotely. Each student is provided with a simulated electronic circuit, such as a breadboard or digital device, and a set of components and test equipment. Students can link their breadboards together over the Internet, and use them to build, modify, and test realistic simulations of electronic circuits. They work independently on their own piece of the circuit, but they can communicate with their teammates and observe their piece. We will monitor each student’s actions and communications, analyze the data, and report on the performance of each individual student as well as that of the team as a whole.

Watch our project partners at ETS describe the emerging field of
collaborative assessment!

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400545. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

As the students modify their circuit, make measurements, and communicate with one another, their actions will be time stamped and logged in a central database. We will analyze this data and use it to assess the performance of each team member, as well as the ability of the team to work well together. We will compare the results of this analysis to observational data, and if we find agreement we will automate the process and use it to generate reports for the teacher as well as the students, thus supporting the assignment of grades to individual students based on their work within the team.

Employers and educators acting as project partners, consultants, and members of our Advisory Board will help us to ensure that the collaborative challenges we offer are relevant to the skills in demand in the modern workplace. We are aware, however, that collaborative problem solving is a requirement of many STEM jobs and careers, and one of our challenges on this project will be to generalize our findings and to communicate them as widely as possible in order to improve the teaching and assessing of teamwork in domains other than electronics.

In order to contextualize the computer-generated data obtained from the collaborations, we will administer a personality test as well as pre- and post-tests of electronics knowledge to all participating students. We will also create a brief teacher survey to collect information about the students—both on how they do academically and the extent to which they work well in teams.

Some of the questions that we will seek to answer include:

  • Given the rapidly changing nature of the workplace, in what ways does remote collaboration, in which team members never meet and communication between them is often asynchronous, differ from face-to-face teamwork?
  • Are the techniques used to teach face-to-face collaboration adequate for teaching remote collaboration?
  • Are the relevant skills needed for real-world problem solving the same for face-to-face collaboration as for remote collaboration?
  • Are there students who excel in one type of collaborative environment but struggle in the other?

Another set of questions involves the design of the collaborative challenges themselves.

  • What are the defining characteristics of good collaborative challenges?
  • How long should a collaborative project take to be resolved?

The Teaching Teamwork project is creating collaborative challenges that can only be solved by small teams of students working closely together. The students work on separate computers, each of which runs a fully functional simulation of a portion of an electronics circuit, along with testing instruments such as multimeters, oscilloscopes, and logic probes and a built-in calculator. The individual simulations are linked together to form a complete circuit and the challenges involve altering that circuit to achieve a particular effect. The students communicate using a chat window. They can "zoom out" to see one another's circuits, but can only alter or make measurements on their own. Each student action—from changes in the circuit to chats, measurements, and calculations—is monitored and the resulting log files are analyzed for evidence of team behavior.

The three resistor challenge

A DC voltage source is connected to four resistors in series. Each of three students has control of one of the resistors; the fourth resistor is invisible and inaccessible to them, as is the voltage source. The challenge is to set individual resistances in such a way as to generate a particular voltage drop across them. The challenge voltages as well as the external voltage and resistance are randomly chosen at the start of the activity, so no two teams solve exactly the same problem. The activity is presented in five levels of increasing difficulty.

Level External Voltage External Resistance Goal Voltages
1 Known Known (and = zero Ω) Same
2 Known Known Same (and = V0)
3 Known Known Different
4 Unknown Known Different
5 Unknown Unknown Different

The microcontroller activity

The overall task is to build a circuit that takes input from a numeric keypad and displays the appropriate numeral on a seven-segment display. For purposes of the collaboration, the task consists of three sub-tasks: (1) poll the keypad and report the x,y position of the key press; (2) convert the x,y position to a binary-code decimal (BCD) number; and (3) convert the BCD code into the appropriate voltage settings for each of the segments of the display. Each student is provided with a microcontroller and the necessary accessory equipment: the keypad in the case of the first student and the display for the third. In the first iteration of this activity, the microcontrollers are pre-programmed and the task consists entirely of wiring the circuit correctly. Subsequent versions of the task will include writing some or all of the code that implements the microcontroller functions.

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