Kenny's Blog

19 Oct 2014

Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange in Engineering

The Engineer’s Council at the University of Hawaii just started up their newsletter and was soliciting students to submit interesting articles. This is a very rough draft of an article… I’ve left the outline in a separate section as an exercise to see how my thinking changed between the brainstorm phase and the actual writing phase.

What I hoped to achieve with this particular article was to impress upon readers that collaboration is extremely important for engineering, and even more important for engineering students.


Wikipedia defines collaboration as “working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals.” Collaboration is especially important in engineering, where large projects cannot be completed by a single person. Healthy collaboration also allows for knowledge exchange to happen between people - this is powerful because different ideas and perspectives can mix and evolve. This also matters for engineering students, who are often immersed in very collaborative and knowledge exchange friendly environments. These students, learning some of the teamwork skills necessary for industry, graduate and continue to learn these skills in industry.

And really collaboration is extremely important in engineering industry. Engineers simply cannot build to the scale of what is possible today without collaboration. Design especially, is a process that requires the careful consideration of multiple engineers. Various types design and manufacturing pipelines exist in many industry from integrated circuit design to automobile manufacturing. Such pipelines require large amounts of engineers to work together and create a single product or device.

So collaboration helps engineers create things, but one of the most powerful side effects of collaboration is knowledge exchange. In the process of working with others, people exchange ideas and experiences, mixing that to create brand new concepts and perspectives.

For students knowledge exchange is an extremely powerful mechanism because it is essentially a shortcut to learning and getting exposed to new knowledge. Instead of sitting down in lecture and learning about a topic, students are able to assimilate the pre-digested topic through the experience of their peers. Since another student has taken the time to learn the topic, memorize the features and build the intuition, the information is available in ala-carte form for someone else to pick up through knowledge exchange.

This doesn’t happen purposely all of the time but collaboration is attempted to be integrated into engineering curriculum across the board. Group projects, project classes and discussion groups are all ways of attempting to emulate the collaborative spirit of engineering in the classroom environment. This does work to a certain extent: it exposes students to the fact that they’ll have to work with other people eventually. But it can be a problem when students feel like they HAVE to work with others EVENTUALLY.

Collaborative work in the traditional curriculum is very sterile, too sterile. The classroom is structured, standardized and unyielding. Students are more or less grudgingly forced to work with others when collaboration is pushed in these environments. The work eventually contributes to a grade, which is an external measure of your personal or team’s success.

Here are a few “ideas” that came directly from universities: Liquid Crystal Displays, Facebook, Electronic Computers, Magnetic Resonance Imaging So why are universities such powerhouses of new ideas? Answering “resources” is a reasonable response. Universities have multitudes of research money that flow in. But if collaborative work in the classroom is ineffective, how are these new ideas created?

The naturally collaborative environment in a university outside of the classroom is what contributes to the levels of knowledge exchange that results in the large amounts of new ideas that come out of universities. The social groups that form in a university are a result of this natural collaborative environment: Fraternities, sororities and clubs are all examples of this. The university “formula” is to enable large amounts of students the environment and collaborative resources that they need to succeed.

Especially for engineering students, the best way to get the best value and experience from a university education is to take advantage of this collaborative environment. The efforts outside of the classroom appear to yield the most interesting and new results. The industry doesn’t do anything alone, so why should a student have to?


  1. Introduction
    1. What is collaboration?
    2. Points to cover:
      • Collaboration is important in engineering, we can’t build alone
      • It leads to knowedge exchange
      • It matters to university students, their environment is special
    3. Something that all students should remember
  2. The Importance of Collaboration in Engineering
    1. Yes, collaboration is important in engineering
    2. Engineers cannot build alone
      • Too much technical knowledge
      • Wouldn’t be able to build as impressive things
    3. Collaboration is seen all over in industry
      • Various design and manufacturing lifecycles
      • All made for collaboration
      • Examples:
        • AMD - silicon lifecycle and design process
        • Google - Software lifecycle and design process
  3. The Power of Knowledge Exchange
    1. Knowledge exchange is powerful
    2. A shortcut to gaining new knowledge
      • if someone has already gone through the process of assamiliating that info they can pass it on to you
      • it is in an “easier form”
      • passed experience
    3. New perspective
      • everyone has their own experiences
      • a different solution to a problem, more novel
      • this belending creates fresh new perspectives
        • iPhone, smartphones
        • mobile apps: who knew?
        • twitter and social media: who knew?
  4. The University Formula
    1. Traditionally, universities provide the ground for collabortaion/knowledge exchange to thrive
    2. Many “new” an innovative ideas came from universities
      • Facebook
      • LCD
      • Electronic Computer
      • MRIs
    3. The environment breeds collaboration and knowledge exchange
      • dorms, frats, clubs
      • poor engineering students
      • Diversity via exchange students and out of state students
    4. Effective formula for students to work together
  5. Conclusion
    1. Engineering is a collaborative field - need to work together with other engineers
    2. Collaboration can lead to knowledge exchange, which is extremely powerful.
    3. Universities traditionally provide this platform - the university formula.
    4. A new trend has emerged - Hackerspaces and Makerspaces have started to interest people. They provide the same formula.