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Transformative graduate education at Virginia Tech


The NSF MILES IGERT program is advocating and implementing strategies to support and promote multidisciplinary undergraduate and graduate education across campus at Virginia Tech. Dr. Susan Duncan, MILES Director, and Dr. Tim Long, MILES Co-Director, and MILES core faculty Andrea Dietrich participated in the discussion of interdisciplinary research at Virginia Tech in the August 11, 2008 Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Summit held on the Blacksburg campus. Dr. Duncan provided an update on NSF IGERT program Macromolecular Interfaces with Life Sciences (MILES). The summit was supported by the Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education and the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost.

The agenda was focused on identification of challenges and opportunities for interdisciplinary graduate education and research in four specific areas: teaching interdisciplinary classes, advising and mentoring interdisciplinary graduate students, facilitating interdisciplinary research, and academic policies and university structure. The format included brief presentations followed by lively small discussion sessions. The day closed with the formulation of action items.

The symposium involved collaboration from NSF funded researchers from the other three existing IGERT programs at Virginia Tech, Dean of the graduate school at Virginia Tech (Dr. Karen DePauw) and Virginia Tech Provost (Dr. Mark McNamee). Their discussions involved strategies for enhancing sustainability of the IGERT programs once funding from NSF ceases to exist and strategies for implementing multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary education and research as part of the Virginia Tech education curricula. One of the goals was to enhance the education of students by utilizing resources available within the various colleges and departments of the university to advance and embrace the frontiers of interdisciplinary research at this institution.

As part of the MILES IGERT program/project evaluation, Dr. Maura Borrego (Engineering Education and EIGER Evaluator, Virgina Tech) interviewed at least four graduate students and the principal investigators from each of the four IGERTs at this institution. Dr. Borrego’s observations indicate that the MILES IGERT program at Virginia Tech has had a powerful impact on its students. Although intensity of student involvement is varied, each of the students interviewed spoke of multiple benefits which had come to them on account of their affiliation with this interdisciplinary program. Most notably, students mentioned an increased confidence and ability to speak with professors and students from other departments across campus. This confidence and awareness of the position of their individual research in respect to other disciplines was also evident in the interviews themselves. Some students attributed this skill to experiences they had with faculty advisors who represented various fields of study, or to the industry “road trips” they had participated in through MILES. Some students also appear to rely on strong relationships between faculty members to introduce them to different groups on campus.

The students interviewed were generally enthusiastic about certain aspects of the MILES program. For example, some students were particularly pleased with the access they had, through the IGERT program, to a wide network of faculty and resources across campus. This benefit can be maintained without future funding commitments: all it requires is that current interactions and relationships among faculty, departments, and colleges, continue. Additionally, the interaction of interdisciplinary-minded students with faculty and others across campus could be facilitated by policies in departments, colleges, and the graduate school which would not only allow for, but promote or require certain interactions, such as the presence of an outside faculty member on a student’s advisory committee, for example.

Each of the students interviewed was happy with how his or her participation in MILES taught him or her how to communicate in the student’s own and other disciplines. Again, this is a benefit that can be sustained (and perhaps expanded) without additional funding or inordinate strain on faculty time. Faculty members might include opportunities for students to talk about their research in their own classes (such as the interdisciplinary grant writing class, already being offered as part of the IGERT requirements), or encourage students to participate in conferences (within or outside of their own discipline) or opportunities to speak on campus (such as the Graduate Life Center’s weekly speaker series). Recently, the May, 2009 annual PI IGERT meeting in Alexandria, VA provided us with insight as to the next steps to follow to sustain the MILES IGERT program and to continue to be part of a research community based on collaboration among MILES faculty and students and encourage team based approaches in research and education.

Address Goals

Learning: Cultivate a world-class, broadly inclusive science and engineering workforce and expand the scientific literacy of all citizens. The efforts of the PIs from the IGERTs at Virginia Tech to promote multidisciplinary graduate education and research across campus is a perfect example of the change in dynamics for the 21st century education system in the U.S. Collaboration, interactions with other disciplines, and learning and applying various fields of knowledge allows IGERT trainees to develop and learn new and unique skills associated with research and education across multiple disciplines beyond the traditional boundaries of education. Multidisciplinary education helps prepare MILES IGERTs graduates for various job opportunities by having being exposed to interdisciplinary education and the opportunity to have had training in areas of research and education outside their own discipline. Perhaps the exposure by MILES IGERT trainees to other areas of research and education would not have been available during a traditional single department education. Promoting a climate that fosters multidisciplinary education at Virginia tech would enable new students to inquire and be part of the IGERT community on campus to further enhance their professional carriers.