Science as Collaboration

I’m sure I’ve spoken on this before, and I’m sure I’ll speak on this again. Science is an act of collaboration. While there are the lone geniuses among us out there making independent breakthroughs in mathematics and thought, these brilliant minds would be nothing if there wasn’t a community to hear their theories, run with their ideas, and evolve in response to their new visualizations of reality. In my Quantum Mechanics course, we heard stories of the letters that flew from Dirac, and in astronomy it was Chandra who maintained his sanity through correspondence as he lived his life, one nobel prize at a time.

As a child enrolled in pull-out honors classrooms and sequestered in special science tracks, I grew to dread group projects. These were the times when my intellect made me a freak to be fought for because every team needed someone to do the worst of the work. There were the dioramas of English class, designed to depict “Lord of the Rings” in a shoe box. Always there was the person who did all the writing, the person who did all the building (sometimes the same person), and the person who did all of the whining (or people, as the case might have been). In this uneven pattern of inflicted group work, the smart were punished and the lazy were praised as we all shared the same grade. In lab this carried into our activities, our notebooks, our group reports. In history it was the class presentations. Over and over again it repeated until the teachers relented and the smart kids were allowed to work alone just to stop our whining.

Whoever got the neat idea it would be a good idea to partner the A kids with the F kids never stopped to think that also this would do is teach both sets of kids they were freaks not worth the teachers time.

As a college professor, I find myself looking out at a sea of young scientists and engineers who hate group assignments, and I need to find a way to teach them, as I learned the hard way, that group activities can be okay. (And I’m hoping I can teach this before their first group assignment, which is a week from Wednesday).

When works, collaboration can allow an intellectual conquering of the world as partners and teams run wildly through data and ideas, matching one persons strengths against another’s weaknesses so the can build a more capable whole.

The standard way to teach “Collaboration is Good” is to point at all the prominent discoveries that required large teams; the top quark had always been my perennial favorite. Today, Galaxy Zoo offers a new example of a powerful collaboration that anyone can participate in. Still, while neither of these projects could have been accomplished without large collaborations is always convincing.

Sometimes it helps to remind them of why I need collaborators, and why academics like to work in communities and travel to conferences.

As one person, I am capable of a lot of hard work, deep thought, and random acts of creativity, but it is hard to motivate myself forward in isolation. It is through talking, brainstorming, arguing and even sometimes shouting (I tend to avoid that) with collaborators and colleagues that ideas can go from shadows of possibility to reality. In the past couple years this has happened over and over again, as discussions with Fraser took us from thinking, “Reporting from conferences is neat” to creating our Astronomy Cast Live program, and as discussions on a small galaxy evolution literature search led to an SDSS data mining project, and much much more.

now as an adult who can choose my peers, I find that as I work on projects – education, media, and science alike – I have come to like working in partnership with others. My collaborators are people I can ask, “Is the idea crazy?” and to whom I can say, “I’m having a bad math day, can you help?” At home, discussions of astronomy research are met with blank stares, but with my colleagues I can laugh with giddy joy at our progress, and cry over coffee as we work late into the night to prevent mistakes from leading to failures.

A good collaborator is a friend who knows when to tell you your ideas are full of s***. And a good collaborator is someone who makes you keep trying until you come up with a good idea. It is all about the letter “C”: Coffee, communication, creativity, comradery, chardonnay or cider, curiosity, conclusions, collegiality, conferences, colloquiums, and yes, collaborating.

I have a personal policy of only working with people I like and/or respect. This is a luxury I hope never to be forced to give up. It was not a pleasure I had in school, and I don’t think I have any way to guarantee my students will not wish nasty things on the people they partner with in class. But. But maybe I can convince them collaboration is at least worth a try, and that it really can be easier to work with a partner than to work alone.

And really, it isn’t all just about dividing the work – it’s also about having a wingman as you work your way through a playing field of ideas. Tell me, interesting bit of science, have you met my collaborator? Perhaps the two of you should talk…


  1. Teresa August 26, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    God, that brings back memories.

    It wasn’t until college that I realised that group projects could be a good thing, and even then, it was a bit hit and miss. The ones where the teams were set up by the teachers were one thing, and I knew my role in those teams: team nerd.

    However, it was the other style of team-creating that drove me up the wall. Since I was the shy kid who kept to herself in school, the ones with pick-your-own-group frequently left me standing off to one side going “Can’t I just do this by myself?”

  2. Colin J August 26, 2008 at 11:14 am #

    There seems to be a difference between the professional collaboration and the sometimes forced collaboration in classes. We get to work with people that we know can help us, or on projects that we can contribute to, given our skill sets. Is there any better approaches in classrooms (college for you, high school for me) that can approximate this so that the students involved are able to see that benefits of decent group work projects? Is there a way to get good results, and minimal whining?

  3. Beth August 26, 2008 at 2:18 pm #

    In computer science courses (and later in professional projects), many of us like to use pair programming. There’s a web site with a newly released video describing this type of collaboration.

    As a professor, I let the students decide if they want to work in pairs. This has to be an active partnership where the partners take turns being the driver and the navigator. I’ve had it work with students with similar backgrounds and very different backgrounds. If it isn’t working, either partner can quit.

    Essentially, in any collaboration, the partners need to trust the skills of the others. They have to be able to communicate with each other and listen to each other.

    One reason why the bright kids whine is that the less bright kids don’t bring skills and effort to the table. But sometimes the bright kids don’t listen to the other kids or recognize their other (and often very important) talents. It’s easier to just do it themselves and not have to worry that the other kids won’t earn the expected grade of 105. The other kids are happy enough with a 92. It’s harder working in teams, but you learn valuable life skills including that getting a 97 on a team project is okay. (I’m leaving out a lot of personal experience here as a student, professor, and mother.) All the kids need to learn to work together, put in effort, and contribute how they can.

    To make mandatory teamwork work: don’t have it count a lot, don’t give everyone the same grade, encourage communication and listening, and encourage everyone to contribute how best they can. But sometimes it just won’t work because some people don’t care to do well. That happens in real life, too, but if it’s at work, the troublemakers can be fired. Sometimes.

  4. Nicole August 26, 2008 at 5:42 pm #

    Fabulous post! I remember hating group projects all through school for the same reasons. I don’t think I did many in college, but grad school was the first time that I really loved group work. We each had our strengths and weaknesses and we knew it, and we built on each others strengths for the good of the project. And we all worked hard! Mostly this was just in doing homework sets together, but some labs and observing were a serious group effort. Ah, classes… you hate them when you are there, and you miss them when they are gone… I love selective memory!

    So I’m glad I can look forward to productive collaborations in the future 🙂 Wingman is also good.

  5. Jeremy September 16, 2008 at 9:13 am #

    In engineering you really don’t have a choice, but to collaborate. There is just too much to do and too little time in which to do it and too many fields of expertise on each project. I think that Colin hit on the essence of the difference between professional collaboration and school/varsity “group projects.” In professional circumstances there is normally some sort of overseer/project manager and although people are working towards a common goal, to get the project complete, they are ultimately responsible for a particular facet

    In varsity one person may be going for a first while the other person might only want to get the project completed. There are different goals.

    The best way to collaborate in the school/varsity environment, in my experience, is to encourage collaboration but not force it. Everyone must still hand in their own work product and get rewarded accordingly.

    We had to design and build a variable motor drive in 2nd year Elec Eng. Myself and a friend went totally different directions but collaborated quite a bit in the control theory and calculations and helped each other with ideas, but in the end we were still responsible for our own project.

    This is closer to the work environment than either working alone or on a single project in a group at school/varsity.

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