Virginia Tech is taking a major step toward implementing an innovative program to reimagine undergraduate education.

As part of the Beyond Boundaries long-term visioning process for the university, President Tim Sands charged Honors College Dean Paul Knox and then-Provost Thanassis Rikakis with piloting new ways to equip students with skills to solve complex problems as part of diverse teams.

For more than a year, they led a working group of Virginia Tech faculty leaders, representing multiple academic disciplines, in discussions of what such a program might look like. That group has completed its work, and the project is advancing to its next phase. A design group has been appointed to refine details of the program, which is expected to be piloted within the Honors College in fall 2019.

“The challenges of our world require new models of education and discovery that span the entire range of disciplines at a comprehensive university,” Sands said. “I tasked Dr. Knox, Dr. Rikakis, and their working group with imagining a program within honors that emphasizes the dynamic and diverse learning characteristics that will define Virginia Tech in the future. I greatly appreciate their hard work and look forward to this critical project advancing in the design phase.”

The working group recommended a program to develop the next generation of leaders — bold, creative, strategic, innovative, collaborative, and adaptable people who can solve society’s most pressing issues in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world. As the working group formulated that vision, they were informed by Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries visioning process. That process, which spanned 2015-2017, engaged thought-leaders from across the university to provide a clear path for how Virginia Tech navigates the changing landscape of higher education and strengthens its role as a global land-grant institution.

With the Beyond Boundaries vision as a roadmap, Knox, Rikakis, and the working group conceptualized a program in which students will work individually and on diverse teams to build upon the knowledge they gain in their academic majors.

The pilot program is expected to connect training in the discipline with learning the key concepts of multiple disciplines and applying these integrated concepts to transdisciplinary, hands-on learning experiences that will engage partners in industry and other professional sectors.

The program will leverage ongoing work in general education pathways and transdisciplinary problem solving in keeping with the university's Destination Areas. A key goal of the program is to enable students to integrate multiple perspectives and form new insights as professionals.

“Our graduates need to be well-prepared in their selected areas of disciplinary interest and also have sufficient understanding of related disciplines to allow them to work in diverse teams,” Interim Provost Cyril Clarke said. “This pilot program will provide students with opportunities to develop these skills as they define problems and design solutions relevant to real-life situations.”

The pilot program will initially include select honors students with majors in four partnering Virginia Tech colleges: architecture and urban studies, engineering, science, and business. Leaders within these four colleges, as well as other areas of the university, will serve on the program’s design group.

Members of the program’s design group are:

  • Mark Embree, professor of mathematics, associate director of the Virginia Tech Smart Infrastructure Laboratory, program leader, Computational Modeling and Data Analytics Program.
  • Paul Heilker, associate professor of English, Honors College director of experiential learning.
  • Sylvester Johnson, professor of religion and culture, director of the Virginia Tech Center for the Humanities, assistant vice provost for the humanities.
  • Lara Khansa, associate professor of business information technology, associate dean for undergraduate programs.
  • Luke Lester, professor and head, Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • Nikki Lewis, collegiate assistant professor in the Honors College.
  • Anne-Lise Velez, collegiate assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
  • Tom Martin, professor of electrical and computer engineering, Bradley Faculty Fellow of Education.
  • Thanassis Rikakis, presidential fellow for academic innovation.
  • Akshay Sharma, associate professor of industrial design, chair of the School of Architecture + Design Industrial Design Program.
  • Kim Filer, assistant provost for teaching and learning, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, in a consulting capacity.

“This is an exciting and important project that I first began working on with Dr. Rikakis,” Knox said. “We have an outstanding team in place, and I look forward to collaborating with him to bring to fruition our desire to build a program that is a national leader in honors college programs. Together with the team, we will launch a program to provide students with the ability to understand complex systems, recognize connections, and advance innovative solutions.”

Written by Rich Polikoff

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