GROCS: Longitudinal Impacts of Student-Initiated, Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Projects

min read

Key Takeaways

  • The University of Michigan's "Grants Opportunities [Collaborative Spaces]" (GROCS) program was designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration through funding student-initiated creative projects that engaged with digital media.
  • Interviews and surveys were conducted to determine the longitudinal impact of the program on participants, to understand how the experience influenced their academic and professional careers, and to identify specific outcomes.
  • Significant impacts on participants were identified in terms of skills learned as well as outcomes in their subsequent careers, both professional and academic.
  • Along with these positive experiences, some challenges experienced by participants were also identified, and lessons learned could increase the effectiveness of similar programs.

In 2004, the University of Michigan Provost's Office launched the "Grants Opportunities [Collaborative Spaces]" (GROCS) program, a project competition to foster interdisciplinary collaboration through student-initiated creative projects that engaged with digital media. The Provost's Office committed a $60,000 annual budget to fund a grant program to be administered by Digital Media Commons (DMC) staff in the university's Duderstadt Center. As part of programming for the DMC, GROCS funding was renewed annually. GROCS provided teams with stipends, administrative support, a shared workspace, digital media software, and access to production tools and equipment.

In 2010, a university reorganization integrated the DMC into the University Library system. As many other project competitions had emerged across campus, the DMC leadership took this opportunity to redesign the GROCS program. As a first step, an assessment of the program and its longitudinal impact on participants was conducted.

Project Funding and Resources

Each fall semester of the GROCS program's operation, a panel of faculty, staff, and prior GROCS participants reviewed approximately 50 student proposals based on four criteria:

  • A vision for enhancing academic activity (teaching, learning, or research)
  • Collaboration as a means to improve the quality of academic activity
  • Use of digital media as a tool for enhancing academic activity
  • Interdisciplinary perspectives among the project's team members

Each year, the panel selected 4–6 projects, which received a cash grant of $2,500 per student team member, access to equipment and group workspace, and a stipend for special equipment. The stipends were unrestricted, allowing students to spend the funds at their own discretion on project needs; however, a portion of the stipend was reserved until teams presented "final wrap" documentation on their project. Student teams identified a faculty mentor who would help guide the project, and they attended regular meetings with the GROCS program director and the other teams. These meetings were conceived as "design reviews," a model adopted from the studio-based practices of the design and architecture fields in which each team presented their projects and received structured feedback from the group.

The GROCS program was housed in Design Lab 1 (DL1), an innovative connected learning environment that provides programmatic support for exploration and interaction across disciplines (figure 1). The lab provides digital and physical tools to support constructivist learning activities (computers, software, electronic equipment, tools, and materials), as well as flexible, customizable spaces for work, collaboration, and teaching. Student consultants with advanced technical skills and DMC staff provide faculty and students with access to state-of-the-art multimedia facilities, visualization and virtual reality technologies, and collaborative work spaces. A staff member from the DMC served as "technology mentor" for the teams, ensuring that participants had the resources they needed to successfully complete their projects.

figure 1

Figure 1. Design Lab 1 at the University of Michigan

Collaboration across Disciplines

During the six years of the GROCS program (2005–2010), 117 students participated in 31 different projects, with an average project team consisting of four members. Among participants, 18 percent were undergraduates, 60 percent master's students, and 22 percent PhD students. Students came from 12 departments representing over 25 degree programs (table 1).

Table 1. Number of Student Participants by Department

Department Total
Engineering 25
Literature, Science & the Arts 21
Information 19
Art and Design 17
Music, Theatre & Dance 13
Architecture & Urban Planning 7
Public Health 5
Natural Resources & Environment 4
Kinesiology 3
Education 1
Medicine 1
Nursing 1

All GROCS teams were interdisciplinary by design. Applicants were required to demonstrate "interdisciplinary perspectives" in their proposals, and this factor was strongly considered in the review process. Figure 2 visualizes the network of collaborations between members of different departments in GROCS project teams (the size of the circles represents the numbers of participants from that department, and the weight of the connecting line represents the frequency of collaboration between two departments).

figure 2

Figure 2. Collaboration between departments

Examples of GROCS Projects

Given the breadth of academic disciplines and degree programs represented by the students in the GROCS program, along with the diversity of academic focus among students within each project team, the projects undertaken by the GROCS teams spanned a wide range of topics, methods, and materials. The final products demonstrate deep creativity and thoughtfulness about how technology can be applied in interdisciplinary creative projects. GROCS projects included these examples:

  • An interactive astronomical installation displaying 3D star maps in space
  • Computer-controlled indoor miniature blimps to simulate complex system behavior
  • A digital music hardware and software interface that includes haptic force feedback
  • An interactive "visual commons" framework for community-aware public displays
  • A custom multi-touch table interface for digital content display and interaction
  • A location-based social networking system
  • A contextual navigational information system for the blind

One project, in particular, exemplifies the goals of the GROCS program; it also demonstrates the potential that funding and support from such a program can have for projects that grow beyond the academic term in which the effort began. The Zydeco project team consisted of four students from the departments of astronomy and astrophysics, educational studies, information, and computer science and engineering. The goal of the project was to develop an iPhone application to facilitate inquiry‐based learning and engagement among students in museum settings.

The application is designed to guide and enable interactions and investigations with museum exhibits and promote collaboration and dialogue among groups of students. The project team addressed these goals through iterative design and testing of a prototype application with teachers and middle school students in real museum environments, as well as working with the Director of Education at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum. The team used data and feedback from testing to inform development of the design. Outcomes of the project included a functional prototype of the Zydeco application, which enables teachers and students to create science investigations by defining goals, questions, and "labels" to annotate, organize, and reflect on multimodal data (e.g., photos, videos, audio, text) that they collect in museums, in parks, and at home (see figure 3).

figure 3

Figure 3. Students using the Zydeco application in museums

The application was presented at the Interaction Design and Children conference in Barcelona. Subsequently, the Zydeco team received a $1.3 million NSF grant for three years to further develop the application. In addition, the team has published several academic journal publications and conference papers about Zydeco's design and use in educational settings.

GROCS Program Research

As part of the GROCS program, we sought to investigate the long-term influence of the initiative on the students who participated. To this end, we conducted interviews with participants and administered an online survey to explore students' experiences during and beyond the program and to look at the effects it had on participants' academic and professional careers.

Eight GROCS participants took part in the interviews, which were semi-structured, asking students broad questions about the program and its effects. Based on the responses in the interviews, we developed an online survey consisting of 23 questions — both Likert-scale and open-ended — and invited all participants in the program to complete the survey. Of the 120 survey invitations sent, there were 80 responses (a 66 percent response rate). Results of this research showed significant benefits for program participants, both in their academic careers and — for some — in professional activities beyond college. On a 5-point scale (from 1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree), survey respondents gave mean responses of 4 or higher for each of five statements about their overall experience in the program, including factors such as working collaboratively, taking creative risks, and being introduced to new perspectives. The highest mean response (4.60) was for the statement "GROCS was a positive learning experience for me." The research also shed light on some of the general challenges that students faced in completing the work for their projects.

Skill and Career Impacts

GROCS participants identified areas of skill improvement and career development that benefited from their experiences in the program. The survey asked participants whether their projects continued (in any form) after GROCS and whether the GROCS experience resulted in "new personal opportunities, either in school or professionally." To the first question, 59 percent said yes, and 61 percent said yes to the second question, indicating that a majority experienced long-term benefits from their experience.

The particular skills mentioned can be grouped into three broad categories:

Collaboration Skills

  • Learn to collaborate in an egalitarian and productive way
  • Foster ideas or solutions that may lie outside traditional disciplinary boundaries
  • Become more interested in risk-taking

Project Management Skills

  • Develop organizational and management skills necessary for a complex project
  • Bring a team together, assess people's strengths, and distribute work accordingly
  • Manage the expectations of other individuals in an interdisciplinary team

Presentation and Communication Skills

  • Use communication tools and artifacts to support the understanding of the entire team
  • Create shared concepts and articulate them to team members
  • Translate ideas and communicate effectively with people from other disciplines

Participants who had graduated and entered the workforce were employed in businesses of varying sizes, in fields ranging from software engineering and web design to architecture, the arts, and academics. Among the career outcomes mentioned by participants were that the GROCS experience helped them get a job, thanks to the skills they learned and the impression the program had on potential employers; that it shaped further academic work, in some cases forming the basis of a dissertation or thesis; and that it developed a sense of entrepreneurship, with some participants forming small businesses or design practices related to or inspired by their GROCS projects. One participant summed up the benefits this way:

"Much of my professional and personal work/research since the GROCS experience has mirrored the format and process experienced in GROCS. It was an excellent warm-up for interdisciplinary design practice in the real world."

Interdisciplinary Collaboration and GROCS Team Experience

Among survey respondents, 67 percent said they had not had previous experience working on interdisciplinary projects. Participants were generally quite positive about the collaborative nature of the projects and the dynamics of how the team worked together. The strongest mean response (4.27) was for a statement concerning collaboration across disciplines (see table 2).

Table 2. Team Experience Responses

Please rate your agreement with the following statements: Mean
My team valued interdisciplinary collaboration 4.27
My team had the resources we needed to complete our project successfully 4.21
My team welcomed new ideas from team members 4.13
My team received the guidance we needed to complete our project successfully 3.79
My team managed our time well 3.49
My team had enough time to complete our project successfully 3.47

Selected open-ended responses capture the general attitude among many students:

"We learned to speak each other's languages, thinking and talking across fields… We learned to form a joint vision for a project. We worked outside the supervision of a mentor to achieve our goal, meaning we had no one to rely on but ourselves for creative solutions."
"The GROCS program teaches students how to collaborate, how to organize a collaborative project … to develop organizational skills, management skills that are related to a complex project that isn't based entirely on your own schedule."

Design Review Meetings

The survey asked questions specifically about the design review process, and responses were generally positive, ranging from 3.55 to 3.98 on the 5-point scale (see table 3). These results showed that the design review process successfully supported student-initiated creative projects and was an effective part of the GROCS program design.

Table 3. Design Review Responses

Please rate your agreement with the following statements as related to your team's experiences with design reviews: Mean
Presenting our project in design reviews helped our team communicate our vision to others 3.98
The design review process showed us how other disciplines communicate ideas 3.91
The design review process showed us how other disciplines conceptualize problems 3.89
The design review process was beneficial for our project 3.88
Presenting our project in design reviews helped clarify our overall project 3.83
The feedback from other groups during the design review process was helpful 3.74
We refined/adapted/re-conceptualized our project as a result of design feedback 3.55

One participant quote, in particular, expressed the value students found in the design reviews:

"I think it was great for us to consolidate our work to date on those different reviews and it…gave us a chance in a platform to be reflective about our own work.... [T]hat, combined with the feedback we've got, we could see what ... we were communicating well, what we weren't, the popularity of certain designs, and the weaknesses."


GROCS participants were also asked to reflect on challenges they faced by rating several factors affecting their projects. For these questions, the scale ranged from 1 = very difficult to 5 = very easy, and the lowest means (indicating the greatest difficulty) were for setting the project scope and finalizing the form of the final product (see table 4).

Table 4. Challenges Experienced by Participants

Please rate the difficulty or ease that your GROCs team experienced with: Mean
Openness to ideas and input from all team members 3.85
Communicating effectively across disciplinary backgrounds 3.56
Monitoring the team's progress 3.46
Organizing team meetings 3.41
Agreeing on a project plan and next steps 3.34
Distributing responsibility across a team 3.20
Setting and meeting deadlines 3.20
Ensuring consistent participation from all team members 3.06
Setting the project scope or concept 2.86
Finalizing the form of the final product (e.g., demo, installation, software prototype, etc.) 2.82

These results demonstrate that despite the highly positive evaluations of their GROCS experiences, some participants struggled with difficult challenges related to project management in their team and would have benefited from more explicit guidance about these kinds of issues. The kinds of difficulties respondents identified include defining project scope, managing group dynamics and communication, and ensuring accountability among the members of the project team. Open-ended comments support the survey findings and suggest that providing training and guidance on project management challenges would help increase the positive outcomes and reduce potential problems:

"I think we could have benefited from understanding best practices in project management and project development activities. We sort of figured it out as we went along…. So I think giving students those tools can be super helpful. Or better yet, seeing it demonstrated by example."
"The biggest challenge was constraining the scope of the installation. We set a very ambitious goal, but didn't really have time/funding to realize the full vision. We should have scaled back our goals earlier."

Lessons Learned

Our analysis of the interviews and survey responses from GROCS participants identified several lessons learned that could increase the effectiveness of programs like GROCS in achieving the goal of fostering interdisciplinary collaboration through student-initiated projects.

  1. Support risk-taking while providing structure. GROCS was intentionally designed to encourage risk-taking and deemphasize traditional assessment and evaluation, and teams were intentionally allowed to experience doing something where the final product or outcome wasn't predetermined. The short time frame of the project period, however, and the institutional need for evaluation metrics required that outcomes be determined and some type of result produced. It was a challenge for GROCS to balance supporting a risk-taking environment while providing effective programmatic structure. Similar programs could meet this challenge by structuring a process by which teams collaboratively define success for their project and determine success measures.
  2. Implement a formative assessment process. Participants were instructed to document their process through the project, and they were to define the final "wrap" documentation of their project at the midpoint of the semester. These final projects took many forms, including live performances, tech demonstrations, interactive exhibits, and traditional conference posters. However, the results of these documentation efforts varied widely between teams. Some teams, in fact, failed to sufficiently document their progress and activities. Rather than relying on a summative documentation of the team's entire project activities, similar programs could institute a formative assessment model, structured around gathering artifacts of learning along the way. This process would require adopting a flexible, user-friendly tool or system to enable ongoing documentation and artifact collection.
  3. Incorporate project management skills practice. While some teams reported that the GROCS program taught them how to collaborate, organize a collaborative project, or develop organizational and management skills, others reported facing challenges and difficulties with the lack of these skills. Given the widely diverse backgrounds of participants, all team members won't likely possess or easily learn these skills. Just as GROCS successfully introduced participants to the design review process, the program could be modified to introduce the specific project management skills necessary to the successful completion of team projects. Program leaders could explicitly identify relevant skills and model them through the design review and team meetings process.

Taken together, these results can form a set of best practices for fostering successful interdisciplinary collaboration, which similar programs can adopt to facilitate and support student-initiated creative projects.


The leadership of the Digital Media Commons undertook this research to assess the longitudinal impact of the GROCS program on participants and to understand how the experience influenced their academic and professional careers. Results demonstrated that the GROCS program had significant impacts on participants, both professional and academic, that lasted far beyond the end of the program. As students worked on interdisciplinary creative projects that engaged with digital media, they learned important skills and gained valuable experiences. The breadth and longevity of these impacts lends justification for such programs that seek to provide learning opportunities that exceed the limits of traditional coursework and grade-based assessment by encouraging risk-taking, creativity, and collaboration.