How many professors does it take to teach a Virginia Tech class?

If that class is Honors SuperStudio, the answer is five. 

Let’s do the math here. Five professors. Four sections. Four different ways to look at the Green New Deal. All in a combo pack of one course.

Add in 10 group project presentations and about a dozen VIP guests, among them Honors College Dean Paul Knox and College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Dean Laura Belmonte, who wanted to see what happens when you reimagine undergraduate education.

For all the numbers, Honors SuperStudio really started with two. As in two friends, faculty members Anne-Lise Velez and Stephanie “Nikki” Lewis. 

The SuperStudio story

One semester a few years ago, Velez, collegiate associate professor in what is now the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design and the Honors College, and her pal Lewis, collegiate assistant professor in the Honors College, happened to be teaching in the same building at the same time. 

In terms of scholarship, Velez and Lewis came from totally different worlds. Velez’s background was in architecture and public administration, Lewis’s in computational biology. Their classes seemed to have nothing in common. Velez was teaching was about disaster response. Lewis’s course focused on unmet needs in Medicare patients.

But the friends liked to talk shop, and they soon realized that both courses addressed issues such as equity, ethics, and problem framing. Why not have their sections meet together a few times? “We had some joint classes where we would have both of our sections get together to talk about those common topics,” said Lewis.

Those days of combined discussions proved so interesting that Velez and Lewis began exploring the idea of creating a course that would ask students to examine a single topic from multiple perspectives. 

At Virginia Tech, the moment felt ripe for a truly multidisciplinary course. The Beyond Boundaries initiative encouraged transdisciplinary collaboration. Employers were eager to hire students who could break out of silos and "talk across those barriers to make sure they're all on the same page about what’s ethical and what’s not," said Lewis.

Velez and Lewis hit upon the theme of the Green New Deal — broad enough to include multiple disciplines. Three more faculty members agreed to join the pedagogical experiment: Ralph Hall, associate professor of Urban Affairs and Planning and associate director of the School of Public and International Affairs; Daron Williams, director of instructional design for Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies; and Zack Underwood, director of University Studies

As a member of the +Policy Destination Area, Velez was able to work with Lewis and Underwood to secure a university-level grant that provided summer stipends and a graduate research assistant.

Now they just had to design the course.

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Building the experiment

The structure they settled on was a four-credit class with four sections, each representing a different disciplinary lens on the Green New Deal. Velez would teach a section on environmental policy and social change, Lewis would teach data analytics and health care, Hall would tackle the future of employment, and Williams and Underwood would team-teach a section on the future of higher education. 

No matter what section students joined, they met three days a week in the same large Honors Studio classroom in Squires 134. Sometimes, each section shoved off into its own corner of the room for a discipline-specific discussion. “That's like the fire hose,” said Williams, whose students in the future of higher education section learned about technology, access, equity, and inclusion.

Other days, two sections met together to examine the juncture between their disciplines. When the students in the education and employment sections met, they debated how universities can train students for skills that employers will look for 10 years in the future. 

Most often, all four sections stayed together. The five faculty members took turns leading discussion and activities. “So if you're in my section and you're learning about environmental policy, you're also learning about economics principles from Ralph or data principles from Nikki,” said Velez. “Students have the common context to look at the relationships between each of those individual topics and the Green New Deal.”

By halfway through the semester, SuperStudio students were working on group projects that combined expertise from multiple sections. A bit of education here, a bit of employment there. Some data analytics mixed with environmental policy. 

Eventually the distinctions between your professor and my professor, your section and my section, faded away. “It’s all blended,” said Hall.

A bird's-eye view of the Honors Studio in Squires with students at tables around the room and visitors to Honors SuperStudio watching their presentations
A secret to the success of Honors SuperStudio is the flexibility of its meeting space. The Honors Studio in Squires — formerly the Old Dominion Ballroom — is roomy enough to allow the course's four sections to gather in all kinds of configurations. Tables and chairs on wheels amplify SuperStudio's dynamism. Photo by Michelle Fleury for Virginia Tech.

Everyone welcome

Unlike the similarly transdisciplinary studio-based course created for the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program, you don’t have to be part of the honors program or in a certain major to participate. 

SuperStudio welcomes anyone on campus. This spring, the fifth time SuperStudio was taught at Virginia Tech, students hailed from majors as diverse as biochemistry, engineering, business, English, and philosophy. About half of the students came from the smart and sustainable cities and environmental policy and Planning majors, for which Hall’s SuperStudio section acts as a capstone course.

The ability to pull in such a breadth of students may be a particular knack of the Honors College. According to Dean Paul Knox, "The Honors College is in a unique position to circumvent disciplinary silos by convening multidisciplinary groups of students and bringing them together with faculty from a wide range of disciplines."

No matter their backgrounds or which section of the course they came from — employment, education, public policy, or data — SuperStudio students layered their knowledge — disciplinary expertise, topic-section learning, Green New Deal information — like a trifle. “You'll have these multiple levels of expertise that you'll then combine with other people who have different flavors of expertise and come up with this really rich project,” said Velez.

While all 10 student projects responded to the same theme of the Green New Deal, they had 10 completely different takes on it. 

One group developed a plan to improve active transportation in Nashville. Others promoted biophilic design, environmentally conscious public art, or climate change education. Students tackled community wealth building, the urban heat island effect, transit accessibility, and sustainable jobs. 

Kayleigh Steigman, now a senior in environmental policy and planning, worked on a project to reskill coal industry workers and thus hasten the shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy. She noted that even though she had registered for the employment section of SuperStudio, “it’s helpful to see how other sides would think about the issues.” 

By the end, most students struggled to remember which section of the course they’d originally signed up for, but they all loved how collaborative SuperStudio had become. “It’s just a different way to learn,” said Olivia Wolz, a 2022 graduate in political science who took the course as a senior and participated in a group project on fast fashion. “It’s more interactive than most classes. You’re not expected to sit and listen to a lecture, you’re expected to do things.”

As Knox described it, "Studio pedagogy allows us to incorporate active learning in collaborative project- and problem-based contexts, explore critical, real-world problems, collaborate across disciplines to research the problems from a variety of viewpoints, and work through multiple iterations of design thinking toward better understanding and potential interventions.” 

Changing the world collaboratively

Teaching a class as collaborative as SuperStudio takes extra time for faculty members who aren’t focused solely on teaching. “Our Faculty Activity Reports look the same as other folks’,” said Velez. She credits a supportive Honors College administration with allowing them the flexibility to play with new ideas and develop relationships over time.

Despite the challenges, SuperStudio’s five faculty members are convinced that their course could be replicated — and should be. “We’re just getting students to think about, How do you interact with others in intellectual spaces in a meaningful way in order to make social change happen?” said Lewis. 

In other ways, Honors SuperStudio is teaching students how to change the world, one collaboration at a time.

To learn more about Honors SuperStudio, read "Designing Transdisciplinarity: Exploring Institutional Drivers and Barriers to Collaborative Transdisciplinary Teaching," a paper by Velez, Hall, and Lewis in the Journal of Public Affairs Studies, Nov. 12, 2021.

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