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Engineering Communication in Data Rich Environments

I have been awarded $170,000 from the UW Innovation Fund for the project “Engineering Communication in Data Rich Environments: How do we support innovation in multidisciplinary teams?”

Today’s engineers grapple with more data, more people, and less time. Design theory suggests collaborative problem solving leads to innovation, but multidisciplinary projects often fall short of this potential because experts from different fields lack the communication and collaboration skills they need to translate their work across disciplinary boundaries. Joint problem solving requires teams to address differences in values, requirements, and constraints, as happens when a structural engineer collaborates with an architect. Few engineers are trained explicitly in these skills, yet engineering problems from hardware to infrastructure, from nanotechnology to skyscrapers require engineers to work with teams of experts from different fields.

Through a UW Innovation Research Award, our project will study how engineers communicate with data and data visualizations for interdisciplinary innovation. We will study both student teams and industry teams to identify the key challenges and opportunities for collaboration in these settings. Our research to date suggests a paradox: more detailed visualizations make it easier for interdisciplinary teams to identify and agree upon problems while making it harder for them to generate solutions. The answer to this paradox, we think, is in the communication strategies that engineers use with other professionals. Our goals are to inspire engineering innovation through the transformation of collaboration with data across disciplines; measure the impact of data communication on shared understanding; and train future engineers in the skills and techniques for communication and collaboration in data-rich environments.