Building Thriving Science Laboratory and Classroom Communities

Science is a collaborative endeavor. Understanding of observed phenomena improves over time, as the findings of one scientist generate new questions that are investigated by another scientist. Further, teams of scientists with diverse expertise are often needed to tackle complex challenges. Consider, for example, the World Health Organization’s Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being. Achieving this goal will require the efforts of a variety of scientists—biochemists, geneticists, and environmental toxicologists, to name a few—as well as the expertise of those representing other fields of study, such as sociologists, public policy experts, and economists. Addressing this, as for any complex challenge, will require individuals to work across disciplinary boundaries, as well as differences in age, gender, language, and race/ethnicity.

It is important that all our students understand and appreciate the collaborative nature of science, as this helps students understand why scientific advances occur incrementally over time, building upon the knowledge of others. Further, an awareness of the collaborative nature of science helps students recognize the value of having a diverse set of people with varied skills and experiences at the table when addressing big questions. Beyond recognizing collaborative efforts, it is also important for students to develop skills that will equip them to work effectively in collaborative team settings, scientific or otherwise. In our work as educators, we devote significant time and energy to developing students’ discipline-specific knowledge and technical skills, preparing them for the next level of education or work in their chosen field of study. Do we, however, provide them with the tools necessary to thrive and be productive in the collaborative environments that they will encounter? This is a question that my colleague Rachael Baker and I have asked in our roles as teachers and research mentors at Calvin University.

In recognition of both the need of scientists to work in community and the challenges inherent in these efforts, a new area of study has emerged—the Science of Team Science

In recognition of both the need of scientists to work in community and the challenges inherent in these efforts, a new area of study has emerged—the Science of Team Science (SoTS). Studies within this field have identified numerous benefits of team science endeavors, including enhanced capacity to achieve goals, increased productivity and impact, and improved outcomes for individual team members. Studies have also identified several factors that hinder the attainment of team science benefits, such as difficulties associated with communicating across differences and coordinating shared tasks (Cooke and Hilton 24–38). SoTS researchers have recommended strategies for enhancing benefits and mitigating challenges. Many recommendations build upon studies of non-science teams—athletic, business, and military teams. This prompted Rachael and I, faculty at a faith-based institution, to ask another question: What insights might we be able to gain about building thriving, productive teams in laboratory and classroom settings by studying successful faith communities? We recognized that, similar to the practice of science, the practice of living a rich, faithful Christian life is a collaborative, communal endeavor. Further, we realized that faith communities have been living and working together successfully for thousands of years. Consider the monastic tradition where monks live, worship, and work together throughout their lives. In current culture, we find intentional Christian living communities where members commit to sharing space, time, and money and collaborate in work and ministry endeavors.

 [T]he practice of living a rich, faithful Christian life is a collaborative, communal endeavor.

To answer our question, we interviewed and visited several faith-based intentional living communities that displayed characteristics—safety, inclusivity, productivity, and individual well-being—that we desired to see in our classroom and laboratory communities. Through discussions and observations, in addition to engagement with readings on the topic of Christian community, we identified several practices that are employed within successful groups. We discovered that the employed practices are valuable because together they foster thriving communities, which, in turn, promote safety, inclusivity, productivity, and well-being. These qualities enable communities to best utilize the gifts of diverse team members and achieve common goals.

Some of the practices that we identified as important contributors to the development of thriving community are hospitality, humility, learning together, self-reflection, gratitude, silence, and rest. We have incorporated these practices into our classrooms and research spaces in various ways over the past several years. Below, I will describe how the practice of hospitality has been integrated into educational settings and the impact it has made on classroom and laboratory communities.

In the educational spaces where we have employed Christian practices, we have discovered that the practice of hospitality serves as an important building block, a practice that facilitates engagement with several others. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Amy Wilstermann is a professor of biology and director of the Honors program at Calvin University. Her research interests include mitochondrial rare diseases and virtues development for building community to support team science endeavors. She is a co-founder of the Rare Disease Network, which aims to build community among scientists, medical professionals, students, and patients.