WPI Faculty Members Lead Research and Practice on Equitable Student Teamwork

photo of Prof. Geoff Pfeiferphoto of Prof Lisa StoddardFor Professors Geoff Pfeifer and Lisa Stoddard, work in a Faculty Learning Community has blossomed into a research agenda that aims to transform student teamwork from equality-based to equity-based practices.

In the 2016-17 academic year, Pfeifer and Stoddard were awarded positions in WPI’s Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on Global and Multicultural Competency. They set out to explore ways of better realizing a particular learning outcome in the Great Problems Seminars (GPS) for first year students: helping them understand how great problems impact people differently, depending on factors such as race, ethnicity, class, and gender. They created and assessed modules for four GPS courses focusing on the intersection of race with energy poverty, environmental justice and climate change, food security, and access to clean water. They also worked with other GPS faculty to use similar strategies.

Since their participation in the FLC, Stoddard and Pfeifer have further developed the module and interventions focused on teamwork, since team projects and assignments are such a pervasive element in WPI’s curriculum. They realized that structures put into place to ensure that each student on a team contributes equally do not take into account race-based and gender-based stereotypes that influence roles and task assignments on teams. Experiences of WPI students align with other research showing that implicit or unconscious assumptions about women and students of color often shape and limit their access to learning: limiting the tasks they’re assigned, whether or not their ideas are heard or validated, whether or not their work is acknowledged, as well as their self-efficacy and feelings of belonging.

In response to these problems, Professors Pfeifer and Stoddard are assessing and refining an equity-based intervention focused on asset-mapping. Students identify their own assets, share them with their team members, and create team asset charts, which are used by the team to determine who will take on which task or who will lead on which part of an assignment. Teams are also prompted to consider individual goals for growth and learning. Stoddard and Pfeifer recently presented this work at two conferences: the AAC&U conference on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Democracy in March 2018, and the CoNECD Conference (Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity) in May. Their published paper is entitled “Working Toward More Equitable Team Dynamics: Mapping Student Assets to Minimize Stereotyping and Task Assignment Bias.”

These two faculty members have received a grant from the Aspen Institute's American Talent Initiative to examine impacts of teamwork and equity-based approaches on low income students. Elements of their work are also a central component of a $240,000 grant recently awarded to WPI by the Davis Educational Foundation: “SWEET: Supporting WPI through Effective and Equitable Teamwork in the Project-Based Curriculum.” In addition, their chapter entitled “Equitable and Effective Student Teams: Creating and Managing Team Dynamics for Equitable Learning Outcomes” will appear in the forthcoming book, Beyond All Expectations: Project-Based Learning in the First Year.