The students found the group interactions to be one of the most difficult parts of the course -- this is not surprising, since many of the students are among the most talented children in their schools and are usually looked upon to be the leaders and "carry the load" during group experiences. But this course required students to work with other talented "future leaders," a situation that is common in the real world, especially in industrial design and invention. Considering this, it was expected that the students might leave the course with slightly negative feelings, then gain more confidence in their regular academic program as they began to use their newly acquired group interaction skills. However, this was not the case. Most students spoke very positively of their group experiences, and almost all of them appear to be cognizant of the skills that they were acquiring:
I believe that I (along with the whole of the group) have learned teamwork. For example: being equal, getting along, using each other's skills to our advantage, encouraging each other, etc.
I have learned to work with my group and the special abilities each person in the group has....I also learned that, even though one or two people may seem like the most important in the group, every person is needed. I learned that I can be useful to my group and still not fight.
[In my group], we all have things that we are good at. We didn't have almost any problems....We understand each other, we try to help each other, and we share our ideas and feelings. We also try to accept everyone's opinion by listening carefully and then making comments.
Even the students who had major difficulties when working with the other members of their group reflected upon the lessons that they had learned. For example, one member of a group got sick and left the program, leaving only two students to complete the projects:
What I think I've learned the most about is teamwork. Even when [the sick student] was gone, we accomplished a lot because we worked together and didn't goof off. If we had worked this way from the start, I think we would have had a much better project.
Students from two other groups remarked that they realized that each person required a different amount of praise. For example, Andy noticed that Rebecca became upset if her every activity was not praised enthusiastically. During an interview, Andy stated that he did not realize this at first because he needs very little praise. By giving Rebecca more positive feedback during the last week and a half of the course, he felt that he helped the group to function more smoothly.
The following quotations are perhaps the most telling examples of the impact of the course. The first student explains her objections to the group, then discusses the positive nature of the experience, and the second student describes in detail the benefits of the course:
Like in every project that I have encountered with a group, I have received this feeling that I have to do most of the work (in this case one other student and I felt that way, not just me) because nothing will happen if we try to evenly divide the work. I felt this because there seemed to be a lack of attention toward the project and therefore motivation. I really wanted to be able to choose our own team....After we have picked "the perfect team," I would have liked to analyze the results of our decisions after choosing the team.
I enjoyed this very much. [It was] challenging, which means more exciting. Thanks for doing this. It's a lot better than filing papers like they make me do when I'm finished or bored at my school.
I've learned a lot of things from this experience. It not only was my first experience to make/invent something on our own, but I learned more skills and how to deal with people. That is the most important thing that I learned -- how to accept one's opinions and then to make my comments. Also ... I learned to deal well with people and work out anything. Best of all, I learned to forgive, help, and trust people.
Pattern of the Group Experiences
Initially, students were separated into either four-person (1st session) or three-person groups (2nd session). During both sessions, group membership remained the same for both projects. Although the dynamics of the group interactions are described in more detail in the four case studies (Appendix E), the following pattern held for most groups. At first, delegation and compromise were nonexistent in almost every group. Each student either came up with an idea or deferred to those students who had ideas. After the group decided on an idea to pursue (or were told by a certain group member that his or her idea was the best one), the group proceeded. The "idea losers" generally dropped out of the group processes or became disruptive and engaged in off-task behaviors such as playing with the equipment, teasing the students who were working, or drawing other group members off-task. These negative group interactions persisted until the preparation of the caveat. This was the flashpoint for most major confrontations within the group, since many groups tried to delegate by having the least helpful group members write the caveat. Of course, these students were the least familiar with what the group was doing and could not write the caveat. They became frustrated and verbally lashed out at the other group members.
Soon after the preparation of the caveat, students participated in a group activity. During this activity, students were each asked to fill out a rating scale on the dynamics within their group (Appendix F). Students were then asked to fill out an additional copy of the scale for the group after discussing their individual responses. Nearly all of the 30 students reported that this experience was constructive:
[The activity] helped us to work out our problems and tell our other group members our thoughts without hurting any feelings. We were able to help someone recognize that he/she was becoming too dominant, and [the group] decided to discuss all action beforehand.
The group activity helped our group very much. I feel better about the project and the way our group functions.
I find the group analysis sheets to be very helpful. They help you to see what areas your group is having problems with and helps you to find a way to correct them. If you aren't having any problems, it helps you to see what your strengths are, so that you can use them to excel.
However, the exercise had less of an impact upon some students than on others:
I hope that the group analysis will help our group become more productive. I think that [the other group members] will try to be nicer, but their personalities can't change. I have tried to let them lead discussion, but they never have anything to say, so if I want an opinion I have to drag it out of them. Anyway, I will try to ask questions less, but I won't stop.
After the activity, students prepared a formal patent based upon their work with the telephone. The patents were presented by each group to the rest of the class. At this point (after the group reflection activity and the patent presentations), several groups underwent significant transformations. The teacher noted, "To prepare for the presentation means that all students in the group must go through the process of analyzing the invention, putting it into print, and undetrstanding it well enough to defend it." A group that had major personality conflicts presented a clearly inferior product, and the students in the group were very embarrassed. Another group that had experienced difficult interactions pulled together and presented an excellent patent (they were the only group to achieve the transmission of sound with their telephone).
During the solar energy unit, conflicts in the groups generally subsided, although personality differences widened or grew in some cases. Groups appeared to delegate responsibility more efficiently, and students who were not actively participating became less disruptive. However, compromising was still difficult for most students.
Structure of the Groups
The structure of the groups became an issue on two occasions: At the beginning of the first session, when the decision was made to keep group membership constant across both projects, and between sessions, when group size was debated. With respect to group membership, maintaining groups across both projects had several advantages. First, learning effective group interaction skills was a necessity if students wished to be productive. Second, students had to be persistent rather than give up as soon as they encountered a difficult situation (many of them asked to switch groups as early as the second or third day). However, keeping the same groups also resulted in a different emphasis than that which may have been intended in this course. Students learned a great deal about interacting with their peers in the domain of invention. This is quite different from learning about invention and design in the context of group activities.
When students interact while inventing, group processes are accented; when they learn invention in the context of group activities, invention and design are stressed. In both scenarios, students will inevitably learn about both invention/design and group work, but the focus is somewhat different in each. In this course, students appeared to learn a considerable amount about applied creativity, evaluation of ideas, and the patent process, but the most significant lessons involved interacting productively with group members. Rotating groups between projects may shift the accent toward inventing while still reinforcing some lessons learned during peer interactions. Regardless of the scenario, if the course is well run, the students will learn about both invention and group processes.
The size of the groups was also a major issue. Once again, there appear to be a number of advantages and disadvantages to either group size. In the four-person groups, at least one student in each group (often two) refrained from participating and gradually disappeared from group activities. Since there were still enough motivated people in the group, few problems were encountered unless the group attempted to delegate tasks. Even then, at least one group operated primarily as a three-person team throughout the solar energy unit with apparently few problems. When first session students were asked what they would change about the course, the most frequent response was to make the groups smaller.
One second session student did not attend due to illness, so five groups of three were created. Group members still attempted to "drop out," but (as was expected) the other two group members confronted the drop out much earlier than first session students had. However, when disagreements occurred, students felt "cornered" because it was 2-on-1. This was also expected, but the divisions occurred almost exclusively in terms of gender. If there were two boys in the group and a problem arose, they would always choose the same side. If there were two girls, they would always side against the boy. Interestingly, when interviewed individually outside of the class about the disagreements, some student admitted that both sides were at fault. However, in the classroom gender appears to play a major role (or appears to become the major excuse) in group disagreements. Incidentally, many second session students recommended a larger group size.
In conclusion, rotating group members and changing group size have significant advantages and disadvantages. With respect to exportability, the purposes of the program need to be examined when considering these issues.