Interdisciplinary collaboration between undergraduate students in engineering and non-engineering disciplines is mutually beneficial. For the engineering students, such collaborations provide opportunities to practice effective communication and to utilize their technical expertise in a broader social and societal context; and, for the non-engineers, collaboration demystifies the engineering profession, contextualizes prior STEM knowledge, and, in some instances, allows for the physical realization of concepts through hands-on design and prototyping. The benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration are best realized when students view each others’ respective skillsets and chosen professions as being valuable and necessary in achieving the ultimate goals of the group. The origin and nature of students’ beliefs about dissimilar professions warrants further investigation, particularly as it relates to interdisciplinary collaborative experiences, which have the potential to reshape, either positively or negatively, a priori beliefs about peer collaborators.
The purpose of this case study was to characterize the impact of an interdisciplinary collaboration on engineering and non-engineering undergraduate students’ perceptions of their peers in dissimilar professions. The setting for the study was a mid-sized, research-intensive land grant university in the eastern US, where second and third-year mechanical engineering (ME) and early childhood education (ECE) students were placed on interdisciplinary teams and tasked with designing and fabricating a novel toy for young children that promotes constructive play. Online surveys were administered prior to and after this one semester course and focused on: (1) a priori knowledge and experience of the other group’s subject area; (2) effect of interdisciplinary project on interest in other group’s subject area; and (3) perceptions of other group’s profession and/or their skills.
Survey results showed that neither ME nor ECE students had a prior exposure to the other discipline. After completing the course, ME students perceived that they knew more about child development, play, and the design of children’s toys, and ECE students reported they better understood the types of engineering disciplines. Interesting, ECE students less positively rated their ME counterparts post versus pre-course in the following areas: “very good at math & science,” “hardworking,” “good communicators,” and “intense.” Both ECE and ME students finished the course with fairly balanced perceptions of their own disciplines relative to their counterparts. Both ECE and ME cohorts, on average, agreed that their counterparts’ professions were equally legitimate and disagreed that there was a discrepancy in rigor between ECE and ME. ECE students solidly agreed that ME was a more valued discipline, although ME students were more neutral on this view.
These findings suggest that engineering students have little content knowledge or experience in disparate fields, such as in this case child development and education, and benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration both in terms of content knowledge and developing a healthy appreciation for outside expertise. The collaboration also benefited the non-engineering students by demystifying the field of engineering, potentially alleviating “imposter syndrome” by normalizing team performance expectations, and providing some literacy of the engineering design process. In the case of early childhood education students, these altered perceptions of the engineering discipline may have an important carry-over effect with their future students, particularly women and minorities. This study adds to the growing body of research on the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration at the undergraduate level, particularly as it relates to shifting perceptions of the involved disciplines.
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