Seeds of change: the benefits of mixing students from different disciplines
What do Engineering and German have in common? You might think of car manufacturing – Vorsprung durch Technik – or perhaps your washing machine. But what would happen if you created opportunities for students from these very different disciplines to work together? What could they learn from each other? Dr Ina Linge, Lecturer in German, and Dr Peter Melville-Shreeve, Lecturer in Engineering & Entrepreneurship, created a teaching experiment to find out.
“I was keen to create opportunities for Humanities students to apply their skills to other areas and to learn how valuable such skills are in a variety of contexts,” explains Dr Linge. “For this, I recruited students from the final-year module Sex, Sciences and the Arts. The module explores how modern concepts of sex, gender and sexuality emerged in the early twentieth century in Germany through scientific exploration but also, and importantly, through literary and artistic discussions about gender and sexuality.
“By drawing on connections between the history of sexuality and contemporary discussions such as changing gender roles or LGBTQ+ rights, students learn how history, language and literature can help us understand the present. They are encouraged to reflect on the vital role they can take in questioning and reimagining dominant social values and cultural constructs in our world today.
“The module aims also include teamwork, critical analysis of complex information, and inter-cultural competence – all aspects that are key to working in a diverse team. Collaborating with Pete’s seminar groups offered an opportunity for Humanities students to become an active and equal part in a diverse team, where they were able to offer a critical and creative lens, highlight topics of equality, diversity and inclusion, and analyse projects in their cultural contexts.”
In Engineering, over 220 undergraduate engineers from a range of specialisms are brought together in Entrepreneurship modules to undertake group projects reflecting the European Entrepreneurship Competencies Framework.
“Our Year Two cohort are working to launch businesses,” explains Dr Melville-Shreeve. “This culminates in a technology launch day on campus, where their websites are demonstrated in a ‘Start-Up Boot Camp’ style event.
Belbin Team Roles
“Step one of this journey is team formation, where students identify their skills (and allowable weaknesses) using the Belbin Model. Step two focuses on ideation skills, with teams set the challenge of designing and pitching technologies to minimise water usage for the house of 2030.
“To add depth to the groups, Ina’s students were invited to this session to introduce a diversity of thought to the discussions. Would Humanities students prove a useful Yin to the Engineering Yang?”
Dr Linge and Dr Melville-Shreeve were both impressed with the students’ ability to work together.
“Seminars in Modern Languages and Cultures tend to have no more than 16 students,” explains Dr Linge, “whereas Engineering seminars have up to 60. This meant a handful of Modern Languages and Cultures students joined a much larger group of Engineering students. A daunting prospect!”
Despite this, the students quickly introduced themselves and started brainstorming ideas. By the end of the two-hour seminar, all the Modern Languages and Cultures students chose to present their group’s ideas alongside their Engineering colleagues, becoming a central part of the team.
“All the diverse team presentations showed enthusiasm, knowledge and creativity,” says Dr Linge. “It was a fantastic result and a great learning experience for everyone involved.”
What I learned from this experience is how important having a diverse team is in generating innovative ideas. I was surprised at how applicable the brief at the beginning of the session [about different roles in a team] actually was, as I found myself identifying these roles among my team and seeing that working together with different-minded people was beneficial. Modern Languages student participant
For Dr Melville-Shreeve, thoughts are turning to how similar programmes could be infiltrated by ‘thinkers’ from neighbouring departments. “Great ideas need great teams and, as Belbin reminds us, diversity is key to such. As a famous car manufacturer often reminds us, engineers love ‘Being Ahead through Technology’ (Vorsprung durch Technik). But as our entrepreneurial students will tell you: the more diverse our team; the broader the thought space; the higher the probability of success.”
From an engineering perspective, a lot of us tacked the issue through increasing efficiency of different devices, whereas humanities students were more inclined to look at their personal habits and patterns and eliminate water usage that way. Balancing out these approaches actually resulted in quite a realistic and feasible final solution, making the previously very ambitious goal seem more attainable. Moreover, having worked in different groups within the engineering college, seeing new faces from another subject group allowed us to expand our circle of acquaintances… Overall, this session quite vividly highlighted how a well-balanced and diverse team often can achieve way more than a team of people with a similar mindset to solving issues. Karl, Engineering student
“For me, key to this experiment was an openness towards difference, as well as curiosity to explore similarities,” reflects Dr Linge. “Modern Languages and Engineering students bring very different, but equally important, technical skills to the table. My hope is that future employers and entrepreneurs recognise that having Modern Languages and Cultures graduates on their team is key to success, and that our students at Exeter have the skills and abilities to be fantastic seeds of change. I also hope that Engineering students will continue to take up the opportunity to learn German!”
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