Using an Undergraduate Materials Research Project to Foster Multidisciplinary Teaming Skills

  • James A Newell
  • Doug D Cleary


Both industry (1-4) and accreditation agencies (5) agree that teamwork and communication are among the top skills needed by new engineering graduates. Building on this idea, the Council for Chemical Research Education Committee (6) proposes that ? New chemists and chemical engineers must have the opportunity for a broader exposure to other areas of science and engineering to foster interdisciplinary and collaborative research, ? Communication skills of all types ? oral, written, computer, and group dynamics ? must be more heavily stressed, ? ?Soft Skills? must be more strongly incorporated into the curriculum. These areas include the environment, team working, economics and the corporate/university structure. The importance of multidisciplinary learning also has been re-emphasized by the Wingspread Group on Higher Education (7) who stated that the workers of the 21st century must possess ?cross-functional interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and attitudes.? Despite the growing consensus about the importance of multidisciplinary teaming experiences, faculty struggle to work these experiences into already crowded curricula. For example, the typical chemical engineering curriculum in the United States averages 133 credits (8). Many universities are responding to this challenge by introducing multidisciplinary laboratory or design courses (9,10). At Rowan University, a method of addressing these diverse challenges while also implementing pedagogical valuable hands-on learning experiences (11,12) and technical communications (13-15) has been developed. At Rowan University, all engineering students participate in an eight-semester course sequence known as the engineering clinics (16). A summary of these clinic projects is provided in Table 1. In the Junior and Senior years, these clinic courses involve multidisciplinary student teams working on semester-long or year-long research projects led by an engineering professor. Most of these projects have been sponsored by regional industries or through government grants. Every engineering student participates in these projects and benefits from hands-on learning, exposure to emerging technologies, industrial contact, multidisciplinary teamwork experience, real-world application of classroom learning, and practice in technical communications. Materials science and engineering projects lend themselves especially well to this format. These projects are inherently multidisciplinary as all four traditional engineering disciplines (chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical) have specific interests and expertise in materials. These projects attract student participation and are comparatively simple to find and perform.