Virginia Tech faculty recently teamed up with executives from Boeing to teach students how to blend the humanities with technology and tackle complex global issues.

Students pursuing degrees such as aerospace engineering and international relations comprised the Innovation Collab this fall. The Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences administered the pilot course. 

In this project-based course, students learned the importance of collaboration, communication, and innovative thinking.

Representatives from Boeing and several nonprofits advised students throughout the semester. The partnership provided students with exposure to real-world challenges and industry perspectives, helping to prepare them for potential roles in technology and engineering.

The course culminated in an expo at Newman Library. Teams of students presented their projects and received feedback from Boeing senior executives, engineers, and interns. Topics included electrifying air travel, collaborative autonomy, environmental sustainability, and sustainable travel.

students and reviewers gather around screens where projects are presented
Engineers, executives, and other representatives from Boeing offered suggestions to students during the project expo. Photo by Andrew Adkins for Virginia Tech.

Mission of the class

The course represents an intersection of public interest technology and engineering.

“This is designed to be an eye-opening experience and a reality check for students,” said Shahabedin Sagheb, a senior systems engineer with Boeing and a former assistant collegiate professor in the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program. “We are emphasizing that even if the technology is good, success hinges on capturing human interest and fostering widespread human adoption.”

Students learned the importance of a human-centric approach to creating technology, prioritizing the needs and experiences of real people.

“Our model embodies methods to help students to not just choose a favorite technology, but see a pathway from innovation to discovering an approach that will be truly impactful,” said Sagheb.

Robert Smith, a Boeing executive technical fellow and the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program Distinguished Professor of Practice, served as course instructor.

“We’re teaching these students why and how they must ensure projects they propose can endure,” said Smith. “Our goal is to expose students to learn and apply a more holistic approach to solving problems early in their careers, well before they reach their senior capstone.”

Employees and students gather in a circle to talk about their group projects
The class culminated in an expo demonstration and feedback session at the Newman Library. Photo by Andrew Adkins for Virginia Tech.

Student perspectives

  • Joel George, sophomore aerospace engineering major: “This is definitely a different type of class. It never felt like I was going to a lecture to simply listen to a talk. It was very collaborative with a lot of communication – the framework of thinking more about how you want to introduce your work.” George’s group focused on leveraging electric aircraft to help increase emergency response times in urban areas.
  • Jessica Koka, junior aerospace engineering major: “I learned several useful things and overall, the class was beneficial to me in the ways it was designed to teach.” Koka’s team proposed developing smartwatch technology for monitoring muscle atrophy.
Boeing employee holding a book and speaking to students with feedback.
Representatives from Boeing and several nonprofits helped guide students in the Innovation Collab. Photo by Andrew Adkins for Virginia Tech.

Genesis of the class

Smith said the class is the brainchild of a team that includes Sagheb, himself, and

Program development began in 2019.

The course aligns with the guiding philosophy of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, as it places a strong emphasis on the humanities and encourages interdisciplinary exploration.

A student stands in front of a screen that explains her team project's data metrics
Students working in groups presented projects designed to help solve real world problems. Representatives from Boeing offered feedback. Photo by Andrew Adkins for Virginia Tech.

What’s next for the Innovation Collab?

The Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies and the Center for Humanities – both part of the college –  are exploring ways to expand the class. Faculty leaders in the college shared the following insights:

Evia: “This collaborative course has been foundational for the development of the academic minor in Tech for Humanity, which is currently being developed in the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies. The Boeing representatives involved in this course provided a refreshing boost to our incubating plans, and the Tech for Humanity minor is now undergoing governance approval.”

Ivory: “The Boeing group has spent years working with several of us at Virginia Tech developing a model for pragmatic, team-based coursework solving real-world problems in direct collaboration with industry partners.  It’s particularly exciting for me to see this iteration of the model in the college, where we are applying the framework Boeing has built and adding touches of unique humanistic, social, and behavioral approaches to the problems and questions these students deal with in the course and their future careers.

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