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A message from Virginia Tech President Tim Sands on Destination Areas

April 6, 2017

Tim Sands speaks at the Board of Visitors.
President Tim Sands speaks during the April 2017 meeting of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. Rector James L. Chapman is also pictured.

This year has already been an extraordinary one for Virginia Tech. We are educating more Hokies today than at any time in our history, engaging in more research and outreach than ever before, and continuing to grow the giving spirit of the Hokie nation.

Earlier this week, we celebrated a major investment in one of our Destination Areas: Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities. Several generous donors and industry partners have committed $25 million to match more than $50 million in other private and public investments to create the facilities we need to become — with our partners — the world’s leader in autonomous systems, smart construction, mobility, and advanced energy systems. We are already leading the country and the world in many elements of intelligent infrastructure. These resources allow us to build on these strengths, to connect them, and to project Virginia Tech as the preferred academic partner and destination for talent. The Destination Area also offers a transdisciplinary platform for discovery, learning, and engagement.

I am often asked about Destination Areas, and what they mean for students, faculty, and our partners. Let me offer a brief history. About 20 years ago, Virginia Tech was among the first universities to recognize the need for facilities and organizations that would promote interdisciplinary research. Our institutes have thrived by complementing and augmenting the disciplinary and interdisciplinary research that starts in our departments, schools, and colleges, investing in those collaborations, and creating shared infrastructure to support ambitious interdisciplinary research. Indeed, our institutes’ impact on Virginia Tech’s research profile has proven that such opportunities create fertile ground for discovery and application. Our institute model will remain a critical element of Virginia Tech’s future success. 

Today, there is another layer of opportunity in the complex transdisciplinary problem space — challenges that span the full range of a comprehensive university from the arts, humanities, and physical sciences to engineering, business, design, and the social sciences. Such challenges require new models of transdisciplinary discovery. There is also an opportunity to go beyond the research enterprise to ensure that our students can be an integral part of solving problems that make a difference to the human condition.

Every student, faculty member, and external partner brings disciplinary expertise and a different life experience to the table. Connecting these diverse experiences in an integrative manner can advance ground-breaking solutions to complex problems. In a Destination Area environment, our students build the skills that are essential to a fulfilling life and career – the ability to transform data into actionable information, to work in a diverse team, to communicate effectively, and to apply ethical reasoning to complex problems.

Perhaps an example will help illustrate the future of the Virginia Tech student experience. Imagine three students majoring in sociology, computer science, and urban planning, respectively. They are brought together, along with faculty, professors of practice, and partners in industry and government to address the problem of adapting ride-sharing technology to an aging population. This is a multi-year project that spans much of their time as students at Virginia Tech. The industry partner pays the students while they work part-time in Blacksburg or Roanoke during the academic year, and while they are embedded in the partner’s environment during the summer. In the process of solving this problem, they all become proficient in machine learning, gerontology, and public policy to complement their disciplinary expertise. They build skills in a realistic setting. They create a human network that opens multiple doors to varied career paths. The industry and government partners gain access to talented and well-prepared graduates who can immediately jump in as effective full-time employees. The students have little or no debt to burden their selection of career pathways.

For those of you who have been involved in Beyond Boundaries, you will recognize this example as a VT-Shaped student experience. You will also recognize that research, education, and engagement within the Destination Areas context offer an important component of the VT-Shaped university.

Destination Areas are but one vehicle to create this future. Others include undergraduate research, entrepreneurship, cooperative education, study abroad, and serving a student organization. Together, Virginia Tech will transform the student experience by breaking down the boundaries between STEM and non-STEM education, and between education and career. Every student will know how to use technology to solve problems. Every student will understand the human condition they are trying to improve. Every student will see multiple pathways to a fulfilling life and career.

There will be more great news to come. I invite you to engage with us and be part of the future of Virginia Tech.

 

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