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Faculty Focus: The Fundamentals of Student-Faculty Collaboration
07.12.13 |
Sometimes a research collaboration takes on surprising mid-course dimensions. Last year, Dr. Jeff Ritchie, chair and associate professor of digital communications, and Dr. Michael Lehr, clinical assistant professor of physical therapy, gathered a team of student researchers to look into developing a digital textbook for physical therapy students. They had in mind a tablet-based compilation of videos and 3-D illustrations that would help physical therapy students select and perform therapeutic techniques and interventions in the clinic.

But as the team began their preliminary research, they found that physical therapy students don’t typically use textbooks, relying on notes and handouts from their professors instead, and so were unlikely to adopt the e-text. So the team instead developed a product the therapy students said they could use: a web app that enables them to practice and develop their clinical decision-making skills. The app is currently in testing.

One aspect of the research project that was especially interesting to the group, Ritchie noted, was the actual process of collaboration. “We learned some valuable lessons about working in interdisciplinary teams,” he said. “How do two groups, who speak vastly different languages and approach problems from vastly different perspectives, work together? How do you set up these groups so they can collaborate and accomplish these goals?”

What the team learned is useful to all cross-disciplinary work: that collaborators must place a priority on defining roles, basic mechanics, and outcomes. “You need to set aside time in which all parties can interact,” Ritchie stated. “A lot of it is having a much clearer concept of what is going to be built. Initially we’d proposed this compendium of videos that showed how to perform these interventions, but the students don’t actually use textbooks like we think of them. So clearly establishing what the scope is up front, and not straying from that, is key.” So is clearly defining terms.

“Any professional will talk in their own terminology and it can be a barrier to collaboration,” Ritchie noted. “You have to schedule in time in which each member of the team learns the other’s language.” Ritchie and Lehr have recently written and submitted a poster on the subject and are preparing a manuscript that explores the pedagogical and curricular issues surrounding interdisciplinary faculty-student projects.

Ritchie’s insight into the practice of collaboration also informs his work as a member of LVC’s Sustainability Advisory Committee, an interdisciplinary group that advises the College community on issues related to environmental sustainability. “It’s been remarkably rewarding, because even though we come from different disciplines and speak different languages, our focus is on sustainability—this one central idea,” he said. “We have people from biology, economics, facilities—a combination of academic disciplines and administrative functions—and a number of students who participate.”

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