This is a guest blog post written by Amy Prunuske and Katie Nemeth. Their biographies follow the text.
The laboratory is a multicultural environment that stimulates innovation but also contributes to misunderstandings. Scientists often have formal training in research techniques, but rarely in communication, and particularly not in cross-cultural communication.
In the University of Wisconsin biochemistry laboratory in which Amy did her research training, there were lab mates from Korea, Germany, Japan, India, and Poland, as well as the USA. This diversity is vital for the development of new ideas, but it can also create communication challenges. Many of the undergraduates in the US Midwest come to the university with minimal exposure to people from different backgrounds, so it is important to help them understand that different cultures have differing verbal and nonverbal rules mediating social interactions.
During Katie’s postdoctoral training, she participated in many active learning and training workshops. While diversity and inclusivity were part of the lesson designs, she wondered if and how students could become actively mindful of the role that culture plays in a group setting. Seeking out ideas, she participated in non-science workshops and discovered Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. After finding this vital missing link, Katie worked with Amy to add the experiential learning component to various courses and groups in the biology department.
We have found that Ecotonos is an amazing way to expose scientists to the existence of cultural differences and how to use them as assets. As part of the activity, students are divided into three monocultural groups: Delphenius, Zante, and Aquila—each with a unique set of cultural characteristics. Ecotonos comes with ten sets of rule cards, three case studies and three different tasks, so students can play the game repeatedly and each time it’s different. Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
In our work with the biology students, we have them practice their new cultural rules by creating a flag that represents the values of their culture (see pictures). The students in the monocultural groups enjoy taking on these new characteristics, with some finding it easy and others finding it challenging to behave in new ways.
After the monocultural work, participants are re-sorted into multicultural groups of different structures: minority-majority, joint venture with balanced populations, and diverse membership with representatives of all three cultures. In their multicultural groups, we have them rank the performance of three hypothetical workers, with the three workers demonstrating characteristics similar to one of the three sets of group rules. This exposes the participants to the ways in which we can be biased toward people with behaviors similar to those of our own culture, and allows students to practice getting beyond their biases.
We have used the program as part of the introduction to the biology laboratory, where they will be expected to work in groups, as well as in programs for undergraduates from groups under-represented in the sciences.
Ecotonos is a great ice breaker activity for the students to get to know their classmates, and students often carry forward some of the behaviors learned during the activity, like snapping in approval, as part of creating a new shared culture for their group. Most students find the activity to be fun, and leave it with a much greater appreciation for the challenges of working across cultures.
Here’s a typical student comment: “It was helpful to understand how difficult it might be interacting with a different culture for the first time.” This is an important lesson for scientists, who often believe their discipline is a meritocracy not subject to the biases that are universally found. We are currently measuring the impact of Ecotonos using the cultural intelligence assessment.
We would like to thank Dr. Shelley Smith for introducing Ecotonos to us. We are grateful for the time she took to share her expertise in running the activity.
Amy Prunskee is a Faculty Curriculum Program Manager and Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Medical College of Wisconsin — Central Wisconsin.
Katie Nemeth is an Assistant Professor of the teaching faculty in College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN.