For some of us, group projects can be a nightmare. Maybe you’re the one picking up all the work or you really just can’t stand your classmates and group members, but at the very least, once the project’s over, you can say goodbye to your team. But that’s not quite the case if you’re stuck on a spaceship with them traveling to a distant planet.

Photo by WikiImages on Pixabay

Communications professor Leslie DeChurch and McCormick professor Noshir Contractor are working with NASA to better understand what factors lead to strong teamwork, especially in isolated and confined environments. They are applying their findings to NASA’s planned missions to send humans to Mars, which will begin to launch in the 2030s, according to DeChurch.

NASA reached out to DeChurch to conduct the research, but it also has a more personal connection.

“I grew up on the space coast in Florida, so we went out to the beach to watch the [Challenger] launch, and of course, it exploded," DeChurch said. "But I’ve always had this fascination with the space programs, so for me, even though I was working on a lot of other teamwork issues, when NASA called, it was the thing I was just the most excited to work on.”

Their study is being conducted with “analog teams,” which are groups of experts in scientific fields. The groups live in confinement with little communication with the outside world. DeChurch and Contractor have been testing analog teams, and the next analog team will be tested in Russia for 120 days.

“An outcome of our research will be to produce a set of concrete recommendations for NASA and other space agencies on suggestions and best practices that they can use when composing crews for long-distance missions,” DeChurch said.

Part of their research involves predicting who would work well with each other, and a computer model was created to find the best combinations of people. Data comes from their observations, and more data is taken from the Human Experimentation Research Analog, or HERA. Now, the researchers are testing the computer model and improving it.

So, what were some of their discoveries? Over time, individuals in a team recognize each others’ strengths, but problem-solving and creative thinking skills tend to decline. Individuals withdraw from each other instead of using their collective skills to solve an issue.

Lindsay Larson, a fourth-year graduate student working on the research team and studying leadership, suggested that team-building activities might be a possible solution for this problem. DeChurch also mentioned that facilitated discussions can help improve team problem-solving. She also said building a team with highly compatible members would be especially important for positions that interact with each other more often, for example, someone who works on the computer system would need to work well with someone working on the mechanical system.

As for personality traits, having a strong sense of humor is a benefit for someone hoping to join the Mars mission. But you have to be the right type of funny – aggressive humor, which often criticizes and puts others down, is a negative type of humor when it comes to group work. Affiliative humor, which helps create a sense of belonging and wellbeing, helps people bond and makes others feel included.

While the Northwestern professors have made significant progress on their research, DeChurch predicts they’ll continue for another two years.

“I think the prospect of a Mars mission really captures that spirit that Americans have of wanting to go out and explore and really push the bounds of science in big ways,” DeChurch said.