Our Collaboratory

The medical ignorance collaboratory is an evolving interactive community in cyber and real space primarily among high school and medical school students, K-12 teachers, physician-scholars, biomedical researchers and professional societies who share experiences and resources to promote questioning and to identify, research and solve problems of mutual interest.

Using a variety of computer technologies and other tools, including the internet and the web, videoconferencing, streaming video, newsletters, articles, books, interpersonal and small group communication, the collaborators from Arizona, the nation and the world, are linked by a common vision and interest in the curriculum on medical ignorance with a focus on questions, questioning and questioners.

Led by a core group in the Department of Surgery at The University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, the medical ignorance collaboratory is the primary instrument of dissemination in a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award. The goals of the project and the collaboratory are to:

  • Show K-12 students and teacher participants in Arizona how scientists 'do science' by providing opportunities to work in bioscience laboratories for approximately two months each year.
  • Assist K-12 teachers in transforming their classrooms into scientific questioning laboratories using ignorance methodologies to alter and enhance existing science lessons and units.
  • Empower K-12 student/teacher leaders through showcasing their accomplishments and assisting career development.
  • Promote links among participants from Arizona-wide school districts and national professional organizations to enlarge the impact of CMI/Q-cubed programs, products and people.
  • Make remote sites accessible and promote replication and innovation.
  • Lay the foundation for producing a diverse generation of informed questioners, many of them disadvantaged and minorities, who can understand and make inroads into the vast terrain of medical ignorance and contribute to future medical advances.

What is a Collaboratory?

The word collaboratory rarely can be found in a dictionary, but it is an amalgam of the words "collaborate" and "laboratory." Collaborate itself derives from the Latin com and laborare which means "to work or labor jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor."

For at least a decade, perhaps longer, scholars, scientists, and other researchers, have used the term collaboratory to describe an entity that allows "multiple parties (regardless of where they are or their discipline or the organization) to work on projects of common interest," according to Roger L. Caldwell, PhD, The University of Arizona College of Agriculture, whose ‘Examples and Guiding Principles’ are included below. Caldwell says that collaboratory is a “new word to describe an old technique – a way of group communication (on any topic), at anytime we want, from anywhere, to help us do whatever we want to do – but do it better!”

The distinguished computer scientist, Bill Wulf (, in 1989, in a report prepared for the National Research Council ( described a collaboratory as a "...'center without walls' in which the nation's researchers can perform their research without regard to geographical location -- interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, and accessing information from digital libraries." In addition, the Bartle Library Collaboratory ( for information literacy education attributes to the National Science Foundation the first usage of the term in 1993 to describe electronic collaborative communities of scientists and engineers. Even Wikipedia now carries a definition for collaboratory including these sources. (Wikipedia definition)

The American Distance Education Consortium ( describes collaboratories as "highly interactive environments made up of people, hardware, connectivity and software-driven tools that engage people in intensive ways in the created learning environment... Collaboratories provide the means for meeting the needs of member institutions and enhance the engagement with communities of interest, however they may be defined."

Several dozen organizations which have a presence on the web call themselves a collaboratory and use the word as part of a longer name that identifies the particular subject matter or vision that motivates them. A few examples include:

Electronic Community of Teachers (hosted by Rice University)
Houston Urban Learning Initiatives in a Networked Community
The Collaboratory for Community Support
Learning through Collaborative Visualization (CoVis) Project
Northwestern University Project for K-12 Teachers
Utne Reader Online
Twin Cities Free Net (uses Caucus, can enter as guest)

One of the tools being used by the medical ignorance collaboratory is a web conferencing interactive software program called Caucus. Moderated by Dr. Roger L. Caldwell, University of Arizona, this program affords an opportunity to interact online in a forum for the exchange of ideas and information of mutual interest. The software allows the organization of responses topically and enables people who enter the forum at different times to catch up on other users' entries. The number of users can be expanded, but to encourage useful interactions, each caucus group should be kept relatively small. Permission is required to enter Caucus. Please contact us for more information.

Caldwell’s Examples and Guiding Principles

Caldwell has also developed the following principles designed to govern collaboratories which allow multiple parties (regardless of where they are or their discipline or the organization) to work on projects of common interest. In a nutshell, a collaboratory has three primary parts -- people, information, and tools.


1. Involve others without regard to their location. Barriers of distance, organization, discipline, or level of expertise are removed. Interaction can be in real time (synchronous) or at the convenience of the user (asynchronous).

2. Provide group interaction tools. These would include joint editing and review, shared project libraries or knowledge summaries, shared specialized equipment, ease of finding and reformatting information, flexibility to meet personal needs, and ease of use. These tools also allow new participants to join and quickly review the project background and progress.

3. Recognize that communicating in new ways requires new perspectives. It takes time to become accustomed to the techniques involved, the role of working with others remotely, and learning to focus on the specific project when everyone has other distractions in their own different settings.

4. Share specialized resources and decision making roles. Not all sites approach a project in the same way or have access to similar resources. By collaborating, everyone can gain access to the resources and also see how different approaches can be used to reach the same goals. And, all the participants can be involved in the direction of the project.

5. Assume there is no one best method of collaboration. Different projects and different mixes of people will cause things to be done differently. As long as basic principles are met, this is good. But, finding the right mix of activities and approaches for a particular group will take time.

Collaboratories are good choices when the following conditions are met:

1. The participants are from different locations and organizations but focus on a project of common interest.

2. The project lends itself to multiple approaches, multiple smaller projects, or a large number of participants.

3. Participants are made to feel full partners in the project. This can be done by allowing them to discuss and guide project direction (within the project goals). Project discussions and results are automatically maintained for easy access by everyone, so everyone can have full access to all parts of the project, if they wish to read everything.

4. Everyone is willing to try a different approach. It will take time to become comfortable with this approach. It is likely the available communications equipment for each participant will not be consistently good or has never been optimized for this use. Paying attention to these small details makes for a more successful project.