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Cognition, Cooperation, Coordination

Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Jennifer Henderson (left) works with an undergraduate student on a research project.

Jennifer Henderson (left) works with an undergraduate student on a research project.

Communication professor teaches Lennox Seminar on collective intelligence

by Jeanna Goodrich Balreira '08

On the surface, the physicists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider and a group of 15 liberal arts undergraduates in a seminar might not have much in common. But beyond the collision of microparticles is the synergistic collision of ideas from different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of study. This is core to the practice both of these teams share: learning and leading through collective intelligence.

“Special Topics on Collective Intelligence” was taught in spring 2019 by communication professor Jennifer Henderson, Ph.D., though she would be quick to say she wasn’t the course’s leader. One of the key tenets of collective intelligence as a practice is to share equal leadership across participants through active cognition, cooperation, and coordination.

“At its most basic level, the idea of collective intelligence is that groups comprised of diverse backgrounds and skills can find more creative solutions to complex problems than an individual expert tasked with the same problem,” Henderson says. She adds that Trinity, as a liberal arts institution, is “the perfect laboratory for testing whether collective intelligence can move us beyond current economic, institutional, and social barriers of problem solving.”

Henderson guided the students toward a problem to solve, and the class—comprised of biology, urban studies, psychology, philosophy, marketing, English, and communication majors—chose a timely one: comprehensive immigration reform. The students were charged with collecting and organizing information, developing two original surveys in multiple languages, and writing and naming the proposed legislation.

“The students, not surprisingly, were amazing participants and up to the challenge of tackling this ambitious project,” Henderson says. “They are curious by nature and eager to learn about many topics and from multiple perspectives.”

For the final project, the class worked with students at Sorbonne University in Paris, conducting two original surveys on perceptions of immigration reform. They also collectively wrote a white paper that was sent to staff members of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The seminar was part of Trinity’s Lennox Seminar Series that brings speakers to a class on campus to teach, interact, and conduct a public lecture. Five guest speakers from across the world, including Trinity alumnus Daren Brabham ’04, joined the class to help the students understand collective intelligence through different lenses. Additionally, through Trinity’s Collaborative for Learning and Teaching, Henderson received a grant to redesign her syllabus for this special topic.


Download the whitepaper “Recommendations for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the United States” from Trinity University’s Digital Commons at gotu.us/collectiveintelligence.