The Effects of Physical Environmental on Engineering Team Performance: A Case Study
Grulke, Eric A., Beert, Dan C., Lane, Derek R., Journal of Engineering Education
The effects of physical environment on the performance of student teams were evaluated in a timed case study. Six teams worked on an intensive three-hour problem-solving event as part of their term project. Successful completion ofthe project depended on using engineering skills to solve an open-ended technical problem and produce a one-page memo defining the solution. The skills needed for this exercise included searching electronic databases for relevant information, analyzing journal publications, developing a kinetic model, applying the model to the problem, making team decisions, and communicating the results in a written product.
Three teams performed the exercise in a technology-training classroom (treatment group), newly constructed and flexibly furnished to accommodate interaction and electronic communication. The remaining three teams (control group) were to find any available space within the Engineering complex. The technology classroom featured flexible, team-friendly finishing, and laptop computers with wireless Ethernet connections, giving the students access to Internet database resources and nearby printers. None of the teams selecting their own space chose to work in a traditional classroom. Rather, they all migrated to space that could be used for group discussion, and left these areas to get access to other resources. All groups performed well as teams, probably due to the team training that had been provided to the class prior to the exercise. The three treatment teams in the technology classroom scored significantly better on technical content and communicating their work product in memo form than the control group.
A. Incentive to Study the Effects of Physical Environment on Engineering Team Performance
Since the adoption of Engineering Criteria 2000: Criteria for Accrediting Programs in Engineering in the United States,1 "faculty who employ student teams are now expected to move into an area of instruction and assessment that is much less familiar to most engineering faculty: the teaching and evaluation of student teaming skills."2 Several researchers have studied engineering teams, and, in addition to traditional team training methods, there are customized systems for teaching interaction skills to engineering students; and even problem-based learning methods that integrate team exercises into the classroom .4 In addition, Lewis et al.2 proposed a team assessment model for identifying and evaluating team goals and measuring the impact of teaming experiences on students. While these prior studies address teaching and assessing student interaction skills, little has been done to investigate whether physical environments affect the interaction of engineering student teams and their technical performance.
Multidisciplinary teamwork differs from traditional learning experiences in that traditional learning environments do not support the activities involved in collaborative learning. Should educators be concerned that the physical environment used by their students for team experiences is affecting their performance? Our experiences with student teams and previous research suggest that environment does matter.
B. Prior Work. Effects of Physical Environment
on Team Performance
A 1997 survey of chemical engineering alumni (1955-1995) conducted by the University of Michigan to assess the skills and abilities important to industry revealed that "the ability to work effectively and efficiently in groups" is paramount. Indeed, for the past several years, researchers have studied the effects of physical environment on team performance,5-6 teaming skills in undergraduate engineering project teams,2 and current teaming practices found in engineering curricula.5 Findings from these studies suggest that what distinguishes a team from a small group of people with a common assignment is the quality of their collaboration: their commitment to "a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. …