Transdisciplinary collaborations are at the heart of a university’s creative genius. But what makes them successful? For the How We Collaborate series, we ask groups of collaborators to talk about the process of working together.

To solve the world’s most pressing problems will require diverse, collaborative teams that can innovate beyond silos. That’s the impetus for the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program, an experimental approach to higher education that launched in 2019 with a $20 million gift from Boeing CEO and Virginia Tech alumnus David Calhoun.

In Calhoun studio courses, students from 15 wildly different majors, including business management, graphic design, computer engineering, and environmental policy and planning, form multidisciplinary teams to tackle real-world problems. The faculty is uniquely multidisciplinary too, with an industry partner, Boeing Senior Technical Fellow and Distinguished Professor of Practice Robert Smith, embedded full-time in the program. 

We spoke with Smith and three of his Calhoun colleagues — Katie Walkup, a collegiate assistant professor in the School of Communication; Michael Kretser, a collegiate assistant professor of information technology and decision sciences; and Shahabedin (Shahab) Sagheb, a collegiate assistant professor affiliated with the School of Architecture and Design, about the secret sauce to working together across disciplines. [This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.] 

Why is collaboration so central to the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program? 

Mike: A lot of our industry partners have said, “Hey, we have awesome engineers coming from your school, but they need about two years’ worth of practice to learn to work in a team.” So our goal from day one is to get students talking in a team, so the engineers can understand the Smart and Sustainable Cities people, and the writers can understand the coders. Before classes even start, we have them working on team-building exercises.

Shahab: During Zoom interviews [with potential students], we ask a series of questions that analyze the students based on collaboration: “If you had experience working in teams, what was that? If you have seen conflict, how did you overcome that?” The real world contains problems that nobody can resolve with just one point of view. So the mission of our program is to put the students in a context that they can collaborate from day one, to be able to see a problem holistically from different perspectives. 

Robert: I tend to tell people, “This is not experiential learning. This is beyond experiential.” When you work with someone in your discipline, you get into a mindset about what’s the right approach and the right answer. We put people from diverse backgrounds and diverse disciplines on a team and have them go practice on something and see what kind of innovation emerges.

A lot of students famously hate group work. How do you handle that resistance?

Katie: I think some of the hatred toward group work coming out of high school is that they really have never been trained in collaboration and project management. As someone who's been in some bad groups in my life, I can understand that if you're just thrown into a group with five other people and given no training in how to define roles and responsibilities, how to create a task schedule, and how to hold other people accountable, group work might be a little opaque. So we provide extensive training on how to work in groups. 

Shahab: We developed some videos where we have started addressing some of the theory on collaboration: What are the five stages of teaming? What conflicts are you going to see? How can you address that? How can you manage your team, respect each other, and leverage that diversity? Because if you don't work with each other, that diversity of thought is not going to come in. It's a work in progress. We have to be aware of the issues that happen and then address them. 

Is it important to like your colleagues in order to have a successful collaboration?

Katie: It certainly helps. But the reality is, you don't have to like your colleagues, and it's sometimes better when liking is not really factored into the picture because it's not feasible to always like people. What you need to do is trust them to do their jobs and respect them based on an objective set of criteria. That's what we guide students toward doing. For example, they just completed a group project in the modules that I'm teaching, and they do a collaboration evaluation afterward. They get graded down if they use subjective or emotional language to describe their peers, like, “Oh, I really liked working with this person, they were great." They have to explain, “Did this person attend meetings? Did this person contribute during meetings? Did this person contribute to the actual product being produced?” Then they have to provide exact examples of what this person did in a collaboration. Hopefully, that makes them understand that collaboration is not necessarily about liking a person personally. It's about trusting them to complete their job duties. 

What does collaboration look like among the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program faculty members? 

Mike: In our first year or two, we were meeting at least twice a week, and it would be a good two- to three-hour session. Just as we were looking at [how to create the Studio course] from our own disciplines, we had to develop the idea of how a Pamplin student and an engineering student were going to tackle it.

Katie: When I [was hired to create communication modules for the program], pretty much every day Shahab and Robert came in and we just talked. Those were very long days in the summer where pretty much we just sat down in an office and drank coffee all day, because this type of integration of a course into another course is difficult. I had to know everything that was going on in studio, every phase, every problem that they'd ever experienced. And I had to design modules around those resources. 

Shahab: When we say, collaboration, we truly mean it. We collaborate on mentorship, on research and scholarship of teaching and learning, and we collaborate with industry and nonprofit partners. A month ago, we submitted a paper collaboratively with Robert Smith and Greg Garrett [a senior systems engineer at Boeing who’s also part of the Calhoun Program]. 

Robert, I’m curious about your experience being an industry guy in an academic setting. How long have you been with Boeing?

Robert: 28 years.

And this is your first time teaching at a university? 

Robert: Yes. So often, the industry participation with some academic activity is to give feedback to the students when they do some sort of milestone review, and that's the extent of it. We've tried to structure things in the Calhoun program so there is much more engagement. 

Shahab: I was super happy when I heard that there was going to be an industry partner right here on campus working with us developing this. In every step of the development of the program, Robert has been with us. You see his contribution in lectures, in the way that the presentations work, in the way that feedback works. All of that has been developed together. 

Mike: We're spending a lot of time working together to develop academically challenging solutions that are actually possible and likely to be implemented in, say, a factory setting. It's a really good blend of industry and academics. That’s refreshing.

Robert: Within the Calhoun program, students are kind of doing mini capstones their freshman year, and they continue them through their senior year. It gives them the capability to go beyond just a simple experimental solution to figuring out how to actually integrate it into the business side, the technology, to make it something that people use today outside of the academic environment.

Do you think this is a replicable model, to have someone from Boeing or another industry partner be embedded in an academic program? 

Robert: Right now we do, at the Boeing Company. We're using this as a model for what we might do at other universities.

Katie: Everyone in university settings recognizes the importance of working with industry partners. But unless you have someone like Robert, whose company directive is to be embedded in this program, we see in the scholarship that those collaborations sort of fall by the wayside, which is understandable. Everyone's busy; everyone has different job duties. It really helps if a company is willing to embed an employee within a program.

Shahab: I think the secret sauce is that we respect each other's disciplines and points of views. This idea that, because my point of view comes from a different experience it is not going to be valued — that doesn't come into the equation. We have disagreements, of course we do. Everybody agreeing on the same thing rarely happens. But what happens in our meetings is that we all respect each other's point of view and trust each other that, hey, if you try this, it may work or not, but let's discuss this. At the core of that is that we are hard on ideas, but we are soft on people. That is the secret sauce of how we can collaborate with industry.

If you had to name one quality or practice that you feel is key to a successful collaboration, what would you say?

Shahab: Flexibility and resilience.

Katie: Defined purpose.

Mike: Being open and receptive to wild and crazy ideas.

Robert: Listening to your collaborators.

Pepsi or Coke?

Mike: Coke.

Katie: Diet Coke.

Shahab: Coke.

Robert: Coke.

You all agreed on that. I think this is destiny.

Mike: Maybe we can use that question in our next round of faculty interviews.

Interview conducted by Melody Warnick