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Creating Interdisciplinarity in the IGERT Program


The Sustainable Technology through Interdisciplinary Research (STAIR) program is a newly funded National Science Foundation-program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, under the direction of a faculty team consisting of Dr. Barry Bruce, Dr. Paul Frymier, Dr. David Keffer, Dr. Bamin Khomami, and Dr. Claudia Rawn. This NSF-sponsored Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant employs an interdisciplinary approach to train and equip the next generation of PhD scientists and engineers with the necessary skills to be conversant in all of the fields relevant to sustainable energy production. The program incorporates interdisciplinarity on several levels and integrates it into both the curricular and the research experience of the IGERT students. The faculty team created a new curriculum that integrates fundamental concepts in biological, chemical, materials science, and engineering disciplines with the consideration of the ethical and social/political processes required for the design of sustainable energy technologies. The course, Fundamentals of Sustainable Technology, provides concentrated study in four modules and involves faculty from five departments. Thus, students focused on the biomolecular aspects of sustainable energy work side by side with students focused on the materials aspects. By working in interdisciplinary teams, these students develop expertise in their field and a knowledgeable breadth of the other disciplines with whom they must interact.

On the research side, all IGERT students are participating in one of three research tasks: (1) biological production of hydrogen, (2) discovery of hydrogen storage materials, and (3) understanding structure/property relationships in hydrogen fuel cells. Taken together, these tasks describe a complete fuel cycle with production, storage and conversion to energy; they are connected within the context of a sustainable cycle.

Students in any one task share in an interdisciplinary experience through exposure to the work and interaction with the students and faculty involved in the other two tasks. Within a given task, there are distinct projects involving synthesis, characterization and modeling, which are advised by faculty from the five participating departments, and there is an additional layer of interdisciplinarity which allows, for example, the modeling student to have an opportunity to learn how to use a characterization technique.
Furthermore, this collaboration is conducted within the context of sustainability. Research alternatives will be analyzed not only on the basis of their technical merits but also on the wider impact of their implementation on society and the environment.

We believe this interdisciplinary approach in curricula and research, supported by the IGERT grant, broadens student experience, understanding, and approaches to problem solving. Finding alternate, sustainable energy sources requires expertise in more than one area; single discipline grants may not be sufficient to meet this challenge due to their limited focus of study and research.

Address Goals

The multiple levels of interdisciplinary work in this grant provide the students with a broader educational experience and better prepare them for a career in the development and assessment of alternative fuels because they learn to speak the language of multiple, relevant areas and interact with many types of people involved in solving the global energy/climate crisis. The interdisciplinary nature of the research tasks, in which students and faculty work on synthesis, characterization, and modeling of new materials, is integrated into a loop. In this loop, experiment lays the foundation for theory, and modeling guides experiment and provides a promising path leading to viable solutions to the technical barriers to widespread implementation of an alternative fuel.