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A Dam(n) Failure: Exploring Interdisciplinary, Cross-Course Group Projects on STEM-Translation in Crisis Communication

Laura Elizabeth Willis, Assistant Professor of Health and Strategic Communication in the School of Communication at Quinnipiac University.

Laura E. Willis, Quinnipiac University


This exploratory, quasi-experimental study examines whether incorporating an interdisciplinary, cross-course aspect to a group project on the Teton Dam failure in a crisis communication management course would impact public relations students’ ability to translate technical aspects of the crisis for media and public audiences. Results suggest the inclusion of an engineering student as a technical expert negatively impacted project grades and increased student frustration. Possible improvements and lessons for future interdisciplinary, cross-course projects are presented.

Keywords: science communication, STEM translation, cross-course projects, interdisciplinary projects

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A Dam(n) Failure: Exploring Interdisciplinary, Cross-Course Group Projects on STEM-Translation in Crisis Communication

A Dam(n) Failure: Exploring Interdisciplinary, Cross-Course Group Projects on STEM-Translation in Crisis Communication

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), employment in occupations related to STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is projected to grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022. With this surge in STEM fields in recent decades, a heightened focus on science communication has followed. Professional networks (such as Stempra) and university programs (from UC Santa Cruz to MIT) have been developed specifically for STEM public relations and communications practitioners. With this in mind, it is becoming increasingly appropriate for communications educators to integrate STEM-related coursework into their curriculum.

Effective science communication is informative (Fischhoff, 2013), and communications practitioners must develop the skills to create meaningful interactions with STEM professionals that result in translation of scientific jargon for lay audiences (Woolston, 2014). While not all public relations students may envision a future working in science communication, the value of learning how to function effectively in interdisciplinary teams is understood to be universal across professions (Goltz, Hietapelto, Reinsch, & Tyrell, 2008). As such, the present paper describes an interdisciplinary, technical group project designed by a strategic communication professor and an engineering professor to provide students the experience of working in interdisciplinary groups within the safe environment of a classroom. Interdisciplinary groups, as used in this paper, refers to combining undergraduate students from two different courses in two different degree programs. Through this quasi-experimental design, the implementation and effect of the cross-course, interdisciplinary group on the key learning objectives, specifically the translation of technical language, of the project is examined.

As a part of the cross-course, interdisciplinary group project, undergraduate public relations majors and undergraduate engineering majors were required to collaborate, where each small group of public relations majors was teamed up with one engineering major. This paper may be beneficial in assisting other faculty who seek to initiate such interdisciplinary, cross-course teams. To begin, this paper reviews literature related to cross-course and interdisciplinary learning environments. The quasi-experimental study is then discussed, and results of the study are presented in conjunction with suggestions for future cross-course, interdisciplinary project development.


Cross-Course and Interdisciplinary Projects to Enhance Learning

Two strategies used to enhance learning at the university level include cross-course and interdisciplinary projects. Both tactics require significant prior planning on behalf of the faculty members developing the projects, and often feature a series of learning objectives that may be shared across all students or vary between students to directly connect with the specific learning objectives of the class in which the student is enrolled (Kruck & Teer, 2009; Waltermaurer & Obach, 2007).

Cross-course projects. Cross-course projects are regularly used to foster collaboration within a major and provide students the opportunity to work in teams that may mirror team work environments common in their career field (Flosi, Fraccastoro, & Moss, 2010). Extant research on this tactic also shows it is utilized to emphasize a discipline’s integrative nature, highlighting how material within a major should not be understood as compartmentalized by class (Waltermaurer & Obach, 2007). In addition to projects that are developed within a specific major or discipline, cross-course projects are frequently used to bolster the goals of a liberal arts education. These projects are developed to encourage students to integrate their learning in a general education context, instead of assuming that students will integrate ideas and practices on their own, outside of the classroom (Envick, Madison, & Priesmeyer, 2003; Wingert et al., 2011). While these cross-course projects generally include learning outcomes from multiple disciplines as well as interdisciplinary learning outcomes, it seems that communication learning objectives have not been included in the pedagogical examination of cross-course projects thus far.

Interdisciplinary projects. Interdisciplinary efforts require integration of disciplinary sub-contributions, and participants need to take into account their peers’ work in order to make their own contributions (Petrie, 1976). According to Repko (2008), interdisciplinary learning influences four cognitive abilities, including perspective-taking, the development of structural knowledge, the integration of conflicting insights from multiple disciplines, and the production of interdisciplinary understanding of a problem. These projects have also been used to bolster technical and employability skills (Juhl, Yearsley, & Silva, 1997). Interdisciplinary projects may be team-taught, although this is not a requirement (Little & Hoel, 2011).

Extant research examining the role of interdisciplinary group projects has found that cooperative work among students can increase learning (Birol, Birol, & Cinar, 2001; Jensen, Moore, & Hatch, 2002) and improve student attitudes toward coursework (Little & Hoel, 2011). However, most of the work examining the impact of interdisciplinary group projects has been conducted in business (Envick, Madison, & Priesmeyer, 2003; Kruck & Teer, 2009), science (Juhl, Yearsley, & Silva, 1997; Little & Hoel, 2011), and engineering courses (Jaccheri & Sindre, 2007; McCahon & Lavelle, 1998). The present paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by considering the use of an interdisciplinary, cross-course project in an upper-level public relations course.

Crisis Communication  

The study of crisis communication focuses on the management of organizational communication during and after experiencing a crisis (Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2014). According to Coombs (2001), crisis communication management courses should focus on three key objectives: (1) approaching crisis management, (2) understanding key concepts, including the core elements for the crisis sensing mechanism and guidelines for selecting crisis team members, and (3) developing essential skills and abilities, such as functioning as an effective spokesperson, constructing crisis management plans, and assessing information needs and resources during crisis situations. When critical details of a crisis are STEM in nature, such as the environmental effects of machinery or infrastructure failures, it is imperative that crisis communicators translate complicated technical information. Beyond issues of image repair, crisis communication courses should develop mindsets and skills that provide students the ability to give organizations the opportunity to communicate clearly with their key publics, with the ultimate goals of transcending crises and strengthening relationships with their publics.

In pedagogical literature for public relations professors, a balance between theory and practice has been recommended, as has the integration of individual and group case study work for upper level courses (Sparks & Conwell, 1998). According to Coombs and Rybacki (1999, p. 57), “the most desirable teaching strategies and assignments are those which enable students to put theory into practice.” Built off this premise, the present study examines the implementation and effect of an interdisciplinary, cross-course technical group project between undergraduate geotechnical engineering and public relations students on the application of crisis communication theory and practice. This study is particularly concerned with the impact of working in an interdisciplinary team on public relations students’ translation of technical language and solutions for media and public audiences. With this in mind, the following research questions are proposed:

R1: How does the introduction of an interdisciplinary, cross-course project with engineering students impact public relations students’ success when dealing with an engineering crisis?

R2: How does the introduction of an interdisciplinary, cross-course project with engineering students impact public relations students’ ability to translate technical engineering language for lay audiences?

R3: How do students assess a STEM-related crisis communication case study project?

R4: How do students assess their own ability to translate technical language for lay audiences through the project?


For the purposes of this study, an environmental crisis caused by an engineering failure served as the basis of a group project assignment for two sections of an upper-level crisis communication management course. Access to an engineering student to serve as an ‘engineering expert’ to work with throughout the assignment was reserved for the experimental section. This interdisciplinary, cross-course project blends crisis communication theory with the applied, practical skills required to work with a STEM client. The assignment was composed of two key components: an in-class scenario and a written crisis communication plan. The planning for this project was modeled after the recommendations put forth by McCahon and Lavelle (1998) in their discussion of implementation of cross-disciplinary teams of business and engineering students.

According to Shadish, Cook, and Campbell (2002), quasi-experimental designs utilize pre-existing groups as a way of examining the effects of an experimental manipulation. When teaching multiple sections of the same course, professors have the opportunity to introduce a change in one course, such as an interdisciplinary, cross-course project, while holding other variables as constant as possible to examine the impact of the pedagogical manipulation (Carle, Jaffee, & Miller, 2009). Although this design does not allow for strong causal attribution (Shadish, 2006), it does provide professors the opportunity to gain systematic and empirical evidence of effectiveness. Therefore, this study provides preliminary data regarding the effectiveness of interdisciplinary, cross-course group projects on public relations students’ ability to utilize engineering “experts” to increase meaningful translation of relevant technical information for their crisis communication materials.


Upper-level public relations undergraduate students (N = 50) enrolled in two sections of a senior seminar course on crisis communication management at a small, private university in the Northeast area of the United States participated in this study. The mean age of the participants was 21 years old (SD = .85). All were seniors, or in the fourth full year of undergraduate studies, and most were women (98%). Most had taken the science courses for their general education requirements (88%); however, none had college-level experience with engineering material. Demographic and STEM course history did not differ between sections.


At this university, the strategic communication department generally offers two sections of a crisis communications management senior seminar course each semester. The section to receive the experimental manipulation, i.e., the interdisciplinary, cross-course version of the engineering crisis assignment, was randomly selected, and the other section served as the control. The author taught both sections. Aside from the experimental manipulation, both sections received identical course materials, including assigned readings, lecture information, other assignments, and exams.

All participants completed one of two versions of the in-class engineering crisis activity. The engineering crisis activity was based on a case study of a geotechnical engineering failure commonly used in geotechnical engineering courses, the Teton Dam failure. The case study and related materials, including two scholarly readings and two videos, were selected by a geotechnical engineering professor. The control section (N = 26) was exposed to all the related case study materials prior to class and asked to begin discussing the case and potential crisis response strategies with their group members for their in-class scenario. The experimental section (N = 24) was also exposed to all the related case study materials prior to class; however, for their in-class scenario, each group was provided an “engineering expert” from a mid-level engineering course at the same university to serve as their engineering liaison. The engineering students were assigned randomly to the crisis communication groups. Each group’s “expert” provided their group with a supplemental technical report to provide further information about the crisis.

All student groups were then given a week to develop a crisis communication plan, using a crisis communication theory to suggest a proposed course of action featuring both technical and communication components. The final plan was expected to include a timeframe for crisis communication, discussion of spokesperson(s) and stakeholders, and image restoration strategies appropriate for the crisis. Additionally, the groups were to develop the opening statement for the initial news conference, the initial press release, and a plan of action for the fictional engineering team who would be tasked with determining how to move forward with the failure site. The groups in the experimental section were encouraged to consult with their “experts” outside of the in-class scenario as questions arose.


Achievement. Using academic records from the sections’ gradebooks, students’ academic achievement on the assignment as a whole and the subcomponent of the assignment focused on technical language translation, worth 15/100 points, can be objectively examined (see Table 1 for descriptive statistics). Additionally, two independent scorers evaluated the technical language translation of the public-facing component of the assignment, the press release, on a rubric developed to assess effectiveness of translation. The reviewers showed a strong degree of agreement, with a Cronbach’s alpha of .93.

Table 1 Descriptive Statistics of Achievement Measures

  Mean SD Range
Overall project grade
(out of 100)
88.9 5.3 26.25
Translation subcomponent
(out of 15)
11.9 1.4 6

Assessment. Students anonymously evaluated their experience with the engineering crisis assignment as a part of a larger, end-of-the-semester class survey. Through an open-ended item, students were asked to “Describe their overall experience with the engineering crisis activity, making sure to touch on any concerns related to the translation of technical information for lay audiences.”


Given the exploratory nature of the research question, two-tailed t-tests were used to examine a difference in achievement scores across the two sections. There was a significant effect for the section on overall project score, t(48)= -3.49, p = .001, with students in the experimental section, where they were assigned and able to work with an engineering student serving as a technical expert for the project (M = 86.4, SD = 5.8), scoring lower on the engineering crisis project assignment than students in the control section (M = 91.2, SD = 3.6). There was also a significant effect for the section on the technical translation subcomponent, t(48) = -5.9, p < .001, with students in the experimental section (M = 10.9, SD = 1.2) scoring lower, on average, on the technical translation subcomponent than students in the control section (M = 12.7, SD = 1.1). Moreover, this effect was found through the independent scorers’ evaluation, t(17)= -3.8, p = .05.


The qualitative responses to the item in the end-of-the-semester survey regarding the engineering crisis assignment indicated that students in both sections saw value in a STEM-related assignment. One student from the control section wrote, “I hadn’t ever thought about how – no matter where I end up working – my organization might go through a crisis that has scientific or technical components. It was interesting to think about how I might need to first learn what the technical issues are so that I can explain them to others without jargon.”


The responses also highlighted that students in the experimental section were generally more aware that translation of technical information was a key learning objective of the assignment. One student explained that working with the expert “helped me realize how difficult it can be to translate technical information for non-experts.” That being said, students in this section also expressed frustration with their assigned ‘experts’ from the engineering course. One student who was in the experimental section wrote “I was so annoyed because it felt like he didn’t care to help us better understand the material. He would just explain the engineering failure in the same way, no matter how we asked for more or a different explanation.” Another student wrote that “it felt like she didn’t care as much about the project as we did – I don’t know maybe it wasn’t a big project for her course.” Another issue that students in the experimental section discussed in their responses was a desire for more in-class interaction with their experts: “I wish that we could have had more than 1 class period to meet with our expert since we didn’t have a time that worked for us to meet outside of class as a group.”


This preliminary investigation used a quasi-experimental design to examine the role of interdisciplinary, cross-course projects in public relations students’ ability to translate the key technical concerns of an engineering failure crisis for media and general public audiences. In the control section, the communication students developed a crisis communication management plan based off the case study materials alone, without contact with the engineering course. In the experimental section, the crisis situation was supplemented by an engineering student serving as an expert, providing a technical report and answering their group’s questions about the technical aspects of the case study. Based off of this report and interaction with the engineering students, the communication students then developed a crisis communication management plan. All crisis communication plans were expected to apply theory and suggest a proposed course of action featuring both technical and communication components.

In contrast to the positive impacts on student learning that had been reported previously in other pedagogical examinations of interdisciplinary and cross-course projects, the results of this study suggest that the inclusion of the interdisciplinary, cross-course aspect of the assignment negatively impacted students’ level of achievement on the assignment as a whole and the key learning objective in particular. Moreover, it appears that the students who participated in the interdisciplinary, cross-course project found the experience frustrating, even while noting the potential parallels to future work situations. It is possible that instead of working with other undergraduate students, public relations students may be better served by working with professional engineers who, due to experience, may be more comfortable explaining an engineering case study, such as the Teton Dam failure.

In terms of improvements for a future interdisciplinary, cross-course project, students voiced that they would have preferred more in-class meeting opportunities with their ‘expert.’ While this interaction may be preferable, there is the possibility of logistical challenges impeding such a change. The ideal situation would be for the cross-course project to involve courses that have the same meeting date and time, so professors could ensure all students would be available to meet. Unfortunately, with course scheduling generally being outside the hands of faculty, the likelihood of this occurring may vary depending on an institution’s scheduling constraints. Another major improvement would be to encourage all involved faculty members to have the project be worth the same across courses. Again, this may not be possible or appropriate depending on (1) the make-up of the courses outside of the interdisciplinary, cross-course project or (2) the time and energy required for the various roles different students may be asked to play in the project. However, when possible, this could be helpful in reducing the perception by students that the project is significantly more important to one class than the other. Finally, it is clear from the students’ use of time during the in-class activity that the importance of the “up-front” work required to prepare for the meeting with the ‘expert’ was not adequately stressed. For future projects, professors should emphasize the importance of meeting preparation so that in-class meeting time is utilized most efficiently, especially if multiple in-class meetings are not possible due to scheduling.

There are several limitations to this study. While all variables that the professor of the crisis communication management course could hold constant (material provided, other assignments, exams, etc.), were held as constant as possible, the flow of lecture and discussion between the two courses is impacted by students’ questions and comments. Moreover, although both sections meet for the same length of time per week, one section met once a week, while the other met twice a week due to university scheduling. Another limitation is the short study duration of a week-long project in a single semester. Although statistically significant differences were found, the full pedagogical effects of interdisciplinary, cross-course projects would possibly be even more apparent with an analysis over multiple semesters.

Unlike pedagogical studies in other disciplines, the benefits of interdisciplinary, cross-course projects for public relations students are not supported by this exploratory investigation. For public relations students, the project stressed several essential interpersonal and intellectual learning outcomes, including written and oral communication, social intelligence, critical thinking and reasoning, and creative thinking. However, the results suggest that the introduction of an engineering student into the group to serve as a technical expert only increased students’ confusion regarding the technical aspects of the Teton Dam failure, and subsequently negatively impacted their ability to translate those concerns for media and public audiences. Of course, due to the study’s quasi-experimental design, it is not absolute that the difference in achievement is directly linked to the experimental manipulation.

As group projects have become integral to the contemporary workforce (Hirsh et. al, 2001), the present study speaks to the role of interdisciplinary and cross-course group projects in general. When considering the logistical lessons learned, this study has implications beyond the fields of engineering and public relations. In regards to the practical concerns of developing interdisciplinary, cross-course projects, this study would suggest incorporating multiple in-class meeting opportunities if possible, having the project’s worth be equivalent across the various courses involved in the project, and maximizing the utility of shared group time by encouraging students to do all preparatory work prior to the in-class meeting(s). One positive takeaway for public relations professors specifically is that results from the assessment across both sections encourage the incorporation of STEM-related assignments. Students remarked on the importance of being able to effectively communicate with and on behalf of STEM professionals, which highlights their understanding of the changes to come in the workforce at large and how it will likely impact their role as public relations practitioners.


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