WPI Calls Out Unconscious Racial and Gender Biases in Project-based Teamwork

Backed by a $240,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the university is teaching WPI students how to identify harmful biases and to work more equitably on team projects
May 18, 2018

Supported by a $240,000 grant from a public charitable foundation, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers will teach WPI students how to identify and address bias and work in groups in ways that promote equity, preparing them for an increasingly diverse workforce.

The grant, from the Davis Educational Foundation, comes as higher education grapples with unconscious biases in areas such as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or national origin. The problem, studies have shown, can be particularly acute in STEM institutions and organizations, where women and students of color are often underrepresented, and where traditional stereotypes still exist.

“Students often don’t realize that they’re behaving with bias,” said Elisabeth Stoddard, assistant teaching professor in the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program, and one of the grant recipients. “For example, team members might assign women more organizational tasks, whereas men might take on more technical roles.”

WPI researchers who received the grant are focusing on these issues in STEM institutions through a group known as Supporting WPI through Effective and Equitable Teamwork, or SWEET. In addition to Stoddard, other professors involved in the effort are Leslie Dodson, co-director of the Global Lab; Adrienne Hall-Phillips, associate professor of marketing, Foisie Business School; Emily Perlow, assistant dean of Students; Geoffrey Pfeifer, associate teaching professor of Philosophy and International & Global Studies; Patricia Stapleton, assistant professor of Social Science & Policy Studies and director of the Society, Technology & Policy program; Curtis Abel, professor of practice, Undergraduate Studies; Paula Quinn, associate director of the Center for Project-Based Learning; Philip Clay, vice president for Student Affairs; Art Heinricher, dean of Undergraduate Studies; and Kristen Wobbe, associate dean, Undergraduate Studies.

This grant is particularly important for WPI, where project-based learning is at the heart of the curriculum: All students are required to apply the knowledge learned in classes and labs to real-world situations via team projects. This work helps students become better collaborators, critical thinkers, and communicators, and better prepares them for careers after graduation.

“We’ve reviewed studies that demonstrate that teams with diverse members are better at problem solving and innovating than homogeneous teams,” said Stoddard, who noted that unconscious biases can impede successful teamwork in student groups, reducing or eliminating the benefits that can come from diversity.

Students affected by team members’ biases and stereotypes can lose confidence, avoid working in groups, and miss opportunities to learn content and develop skills valuable in the workplace. “These students often have to do more than their fair share of work in group projects in order to overcome stereotypes, and it can push women and students of color to leave STEM for other fields,” said Stoddard.

With the grant from Davis Educational Foundation, which supports the undergraduate programs of public and private, regionally accredited, baccalaureate degree–granting colleges and universities throughout New England, the SWEET initiative is a four-phase approach to implement equity-mindedness in teamwork. It will help students working on a team become aware of problems of inequity, such as biases in assigning tasks or certain team members dominating the decision making:

  • Phase 1: Curriculum Modules – Develop and implement team building and dynamics modules in courses, laboratory classes, and projects (such as WPI’s Interactive Qualifying Projects, Major Qualifying Projects).
  • Phase 2: ACTIVATE – Initiate a student-led series of team experiences to foster a culture of high-performing teams with a focus on effective and equitable teamwork.
  • Phase 3: Faculty Training – Develop and implement a training program for faculty to use the team development modules and resources in both curricular and co-curricular settings.
  • Phase 4: SWEET Squad – Create and launch a network of students, faculty, and staff trained to provide support and guidance to team members and those advising teams. The SWEET Squad will serve as a campus-wide consultation body and support network for teams experiencing challenges.

“By applying SWEET within WPI’s project-based curriculum, we hope to raise the awareness of unconscious bias and provide tools that will help everyone,” said Hall-Phillips. “We believe that the learning from the SWEET initiative is critical for working successfully as a team here on campus, and vital in preparing our students to thrive in their careers by helping them recognize bias when they see it, experience it, or feel themselves expressing it.”

The long-range goal for SWEET is to institute more equity-mindedness in teamwork on campus and in campus culture; to dissolve unfair stereotypes; and to enable students to be leaders in equitable and effective teamwork in a diverse, global world and workforce. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2015 that by 2060, 56 percent of the population under age eighteen will be made up of people of color from multiple ethnicities, which will increase the overall diversity of the workforce college students will enter.

Stoddard and Pfeifer have been studying teamwork dynamics among their own students for the last two years, and their work is the foundation for Phase 1 of SWEET.

“Initially, I think stereotyping had some effect on what we all initially thought of each other,” said one of the students involved in Stoddard’s class and study. (Students in the study remain anonymous, per study protocols.) But “the group was able to move past these unspoken stereotypes we put on each other to work together successfully … I now better understand the parts of myself I have to work on when placed in a team so that it functions most successfully.”

For more than a decade, WPI has been working to attract a more gender-balanced and diverse class. In 2007 the university was the first nationally ranked science and engineering institution to no longer require students to submit their scores on SATs and standardized tests, which have been shown to skew against women and underrepresented students. WPI also has developed numerous pre-collegiate outreach programs to engage more girls and underrepresented students of color in STEM.