Three students collaborate while working near a 3D printer.

Moving beyond 'groupthink'

The National Science Foundation will fund a two-year, $200,000 study of collaborative problem solving at Penn State Behrend.

The National Science Foundation will fund a two-year, $200,000 study of group dynamics and collaborative problem solving in simulated manufacturing environments at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Faculty members from two schools at the college will oversee the research, which will promote innovation, creativity and metacognitive awareness – a mindfulness in how one approaches work – among teams of engineers.

In the study, engineering students will work in teams to complete manufacturing simulations, using blocks to construct LEGO cars. Students will work individually in physical and virtual-reality (VR) simulations, each learning a different aspect of the assembly process. Then, in groups, they will try to make the process faster and less expensive by reassessing the design, sourcing, manufacturing and inspection of the toy-block cars.

“Team members may have different opinions about how best to do that,” said Faisal Aqlan, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, “and they might all be right.

 “The goal of the project is not a cheaper toy car,” said Aqlan, who will oversee the manufacturing simulations. “Instead, we hope to identify the shortcomings in our students’ professional skills – the ability to communicate, and work in a team, and to resolve conflicts.”

The design of the study, which includes faculty members from Penn State Behrend’s School of Engineering and School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is itself an exercise in teamwork, said Ivor Knight, associate dean for research and graduate studies.

“At the core of our open-lab model of learning is a commitment to working with industry and business partners,” Knight said. “That collaboration also occurs across the college, as faculty members with expertise in various disciplines partner on research and team-teach courses, encouraging our students to consider different approaches to a problem.”

“Our engineering students tend to think in a linear process,” said Heather Lum, an assistant professor of psychology and a co-researcher on the NSF study. “That’s how we present content in their courses: ‘You need A, B and C to get to the end goal.’

“That’s fine when we’re teaching a black-and-white technical skill,” said Lum, who teaches in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, “but there are gray areas, particularly when you work in a group setting, that sometimes require you to think in a deeper, more critical way.”

Lum’s role in the NSF project will be to test the students in VR environments. An eye-tracking system embedded in the VR headsets will allow researchers to note which LEGO blocks students look at, and for how long, as they select materials for the manufacturing process.

The VR simulations also can be used to anticipate conflicts when students advance to the team environment. If one student is tasked with building the lightest car possible, for example, and another is tasked with minimizing the cost of the car, their goals might align – but also could require compromise as materials and processes are selected.

Richard Zhao, an assistant professor of computer science and software engineering, will lead the development of the VR environments, using the Unity game engine and the HTC Vive VR headset. An additional $37,000 from the National Science Foundation will support that work, which also will involve a team of undergraduate student developers.

The VR component will allow researchers to assess what students learn, and how well they remember it, when information is presented in virtual environments. Previous studies suggest that students remember more of what they learn in immersive simulations and game-based learning projects.

“We want to see if VR is really living up to the hype,” Lum said.

Lisa Jo Elliott, an assistant teaching professor of psychology, will build analytical models to measure the students’ alertness in different environments. A student who never or only briefly looks at a particular LEGO block, for example, is not likely to select that block for the manufacturing process.

For the physical simulations, Aqlan will adapt LEGO-kit assembly projects from a three-year Research Experiences for Teachers study of manufacturing systems. That study, which also was funded by the National Science Foundation, produced simulations for a variety of manufacturing approaches, including craft production, mass production, lean production, mass customization and personalized production.

In the new study, researchers will develop VR simulations for each of those five manufacturing approaches. They will then assess the differences in student learning in both the physical and VR environments. By studying the dynamics of each group – particularly the difficulties when students have to work collaboratively to solve a problem – Aqlan and the other researchers hope to develop a decision-support protocol for the teams. That could be useful across the curriculum, and in disciplines beyond the School of Engineering.

“Our goal is to come up with an intervention that will remove the most common conflicts and errors,” Aqlan said. “If it’s the design that’s a problem, you change the design. If it’s the process, you change the process. If the problem is related to the people in your team, however, your options are limited. You can’t always form a new team. That’s why those professional skills are so essential today. You have to be able to communicate, and collaborate, and find a way to move the team forward.”


To learn more about the study, or to participate on a student team, visit the project’s website.