The Science of Teamwork

Cognitive diversity will help solve today’s toughest challenges

By President Sian Leah Beilock

Sian Leah Beilock

I write this in the wake of one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made since becoming Barnard’s president: moving the College to online learning for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester. As we joined our peers across the country to mitigate the growing threat of COVID-19, the community’s grace and flexibility was truly inspiring. The outpouring of encouragement in words and deeds was equally incredible and impactful, with faculty and alumnae going above and beyond to support students. Making this decision while New York City prepared for an extended fight against a pandemic was not an easy call, but it was the right one. Tougher questions remain, unfortunately.

Scientists and research labs across the world are working in close coordination to solve this devastating health crisis — including many just up the street at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center. Many Barnard alums are on the front lines of the pandemic, including Kamini Doobay ’10, an emergency medicine resident physician at NYU Langone and Bellevue Hospital who recently told the AP, “I’ve never felt so physically and emotionally burdened in my life … so deeply sad and distraught. … It’s really painful to not know what the future holds.”

In time, I am confident that the crisis and our questions surrounding it will be answered. Until then, many are asking, can we expedite this important problem-solving process? In my work as a cognitive scientist, I study how we solve problems under pressure, pinpointing factors for optimal performance, and what makes for successful teams.

Simply put, research shows that diverse groups of people make better decisions and are better collective problem solvers — from the classroom and the workplace to the playing field and the laboratory. Like recent challenges before it, the most successful teams working on COVID-19 will be composed of problem solvers from diverse backgrounds and fields who will use a range of methodologies in the search for medical treatments and vaccines, employing an interdisciplinary approach and sharing a fast-growing global database of knowledge.

When people come from different disciplinary backgrounds, or have different lived experiences because of their socioeconomic status, race, or gender, the way they approach problems, interpret data, and interact with others can differ, too. The differences often produce something extra — a bonus — when folks get together to work toward a common goal. When people with varying “tools” for complicated tasks work inclusively to find solutions, the group’s results are more powerful, and errors in predictions and solutions are lessened.

graph of science degrees awarded to women
By expanding its 4+1 Pathways program to include advanced degrees from Columbia in engineering and computer science, Barnard College is working with funders like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create a pipeline for women and minorities to enter the STEM fields where their numbers are lowest (as shown in the NSF table above).

Gender diversity is an important part of this equation. As president of one of the most selective higher education institutions in the country, I’m proud to report that Barnard is producing exactly the kinds of problem solvers that today’s biggest challenges need — especially in the sciences. In the past 10 years, the percentage of Barnard graduates in the sciences has increased from 25% to 34%, providing a greater pool of women with liberal arts backgrounds who can think critically, communicate effectively, and solve STEM-related problems.

Barnard is also creating new pathways for our students to study and conduct research across STEM, with a special focus on computer science and engineering in collaboration with Columbia — and changing the composition of research teams for the better.

With a growing population of talented, creative women ready to share ideas as experts in STEM-related fields, the odds grow in our favor for being able to predict and solve current and future challenges. At a time when humanity faces a world of tough questions, it’s comforting to know that Barnard is doing its part to help answer some of them.  

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