Group projects in class prepare students for careers

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An employer's dream can also be a student's nightmare: the oh-so-common, often dreaded group project.

But even with hectic schedules, absent team members and long nights, learning to work together may be one of the most valuable lessons of a college education.

The ability to work in a team tops the list of skills desired most by employers, according to an October 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit based in Bethlehem, Pa.

Long before students enter the workforce, collaboration happens often across college campuses. Many of the intensive group projects are offered in classes for upperclassmen, but students can expect to work together throughout their college careers.

Audrey Murrell, associate dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh, said teamwork in college provides invaluable preparation for students.

"Our role is to prepare students to transition into the workforce," Ms. Murrell said. "Teamwork helps students understand how different sources of knowledge come together to move an organization forward. It helps them become effective communicators to get used to talking to people of different backgrounds and increases diversity in all forms."

Despite the advantages of practicing teamwork, it can be difficult logistically for busy students.

Abigail Mathieu, a Point Park University senior in public relations and journalism, said many of her classes emphasize group projects. She said most of the final projects would be impossible to complete alone.

Ms. Mathieu said the biggest challenge is scheduling times to meet when each group member has multiple responsibilities.

"It's often difficult to find time before, say, 10 p.m. when everyone is available," said Ms. Mathieu, who plays softball and works on campus. Last semester, she served as the editor-in-chief for The Pioneer, a student-published magazine.

When group members don't pull their own weight, Ms. Mathieu said, it can be difficult to lay down the law in a group of peers.

"It's hard to know where the boundaries are," she said, adding that she always tries to settle disputes within the group before reaching out to professors. "If people still don't react to that, you have to get professors involved."

Potential conflicts aside, Ms. Mathieu said, most team projects have been beneficial.

Not all courses are conducive to group work, but ones with real-world impact often elicit more dedication and successful teamwork from students.

David Kosbie, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, said age and ability affect the nature of teamwork in college. In order to work on complex projects, students need an underlying understanding of fundamentals. He said he has tried unsuccessfully to implement group work in his introductory computer science class.

"It was the strong carrying the group, and students admitted they didn't learn as much," he said. "They can't collaborate until they have a strong foundation of learning."

Once students are able to make valuable contributions, Mr. Kosbie said, he tries to integrate group work into his courses.

"Programming is a hammer in search of a nail," he said. "It's useless unless you can apply it and do something."

In one case, "the nail" is a cross-departmental course that connects students with organizations around the world to create a product that fills an existing societal need through TechBridgeWorld, a nonprofit aimed at creating innovative technology for developing nations.

Called "Software Development for the Social Good," the course came together as a team effort by Mr. Kosbie and Bernardine Dias, an associate research professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and TechBridgeWorld founder and director.

The first class of about 25 students took place last spring, and another class began in January. Groups must research, design and test the product, and work with organizations around the world to implement it.

Three members of last spring's inaugural class -- Jeff Mich, Neha Rathi and Salem Hilal -- said their experience was unlike any other group project they had ever worked on.

"This typical example is that you're thrown into a group by a teacher and the one guy doesn't show up to class," said Mr. Salem, a junior studying computer science and human-computer interaction. "You end up doing more work than you should, and the teacher doesn't care. That's group work."

Instead, the three students said their group, which also included Jessica Lo, was highly functional, in part because of the life-changing potential of their work: adapting a Braille writing tutor for smartphones. The team took an existing TechBridgeWorld educational aid, designed to teach writing Braille to blind students in India, and adapted it to run on an Android platform.

Previously, the system was only compatible with desktop computers, which are expensive and have unreliable power sources. The ability to use the tutor on smartphones makes learning portable and more accessible to students.

The semester-long project meant many late nights and weekends for the group members, who by the end of the semester had each logged hundreds of hours of work and at least one all-nighter before the final presentation.

The project went through many rounds of design, followed by remote testing of prototypes in India. The results often forced the team to go back to the drawing board. The group used online tools such as the group messaging service GroupMe and the file-sharing service Dropbox to keep everything organized.

"We all ended up caring about this project so much," Ms. Rathi said. "We wouldn't have met for so long if we weren't so invested."

Mr. Mich agreed.

"If a team doesn't work out, a project doesn't ship," he said. "If a project doesn't ship, that's a bunch of wasted time toward something that could have been a really cool thing that could have made a difference. Those are the stakes of this class."

Jeremy Michalek, who teaches courses in mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy at CMU, said teamwork is essential in college because it reflects what students can expect after they are hired.

"Engineers in practice work in teams every day," he said. "Large problems need many people to solve them effectively."

Unlike foundational math and science courses that engineers must take in their first years in college, the senior course has fewer lectures and is more hands-on.

"It's easy to teach them equations, but teamwork is more difficult," Mr. Michalek said. "They need to try it to make it work. It's learning by doing."

Competitive attitudes, busy schedules and laziness sometimes inhibit group work, but Mr. Michalek said it can be used as a teaching opportunity and preparation for the future.

"We can use the competitiveness to motivate students," he said. "I tell students, 'When you graduate, you'll still be working in teams and facing the same problems. You will have to figure out how to come up with a solution.' "

Lauren Lindstrom: or 412-263-1964.

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