The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $1 million to a team of Virginia Tech faculty to enhance part of the undergraduate curriculum in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

The curriculum, bioprocess engineering, is a relatively new area in the emerging field of biotechnology. It encompasses a wide range of engineering practices involving the use of biological feedstocks for the production of food, fiber, and other value added products such as pharmaceuticals, biofuels, plastics, and industrial enzymes.

Graduates of this option normally work in the food, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries, or with numerous other companies that manufacture bio-based industrial products.

The three-year NSF award comes at the same time as the Department of Engineering Education (EngE) at Virginia Tech is revamping its curricula to expand from offering only freshman level courses to offering graduate degrees in engineering education. The Department of Engineering Education will continue to provide a modern, student-focused introduction to engineering for freshmen, and it will place a new emphasis on conducting research and offering courses and programs to alleviate the national shortage of engineering and technology instructors.

The National Academy of Engineering has lauded these efforts, citing Virginia Tech for initiating a "groundbreaking degree program in engineering education."

With the NSF's support, several members of the Department of Engineering Education faculty are now reaching out to improve engineering teaching practices with departments associated with the college. This unprecedented collaboration between engineering and education faculty represents seven departments and three colleges.

Virginia Tech created the bioprocess engineering option five years ago, and student enrollment in this option has since increased by a factor of four. The Department of Biological Systems Engineering anticipates a continued growth in this area and is seeking to add three new faculty positions in molecular, metabolic, and fermentation engineering.

The NSF project is under the direction of Vinod Lohani and Jeffrey Connor of the Department of Engineering Education, Kumar Mallikarjunan and Theo Dillaha of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and Terry Wildman of the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the School of Education. Additional members of the team include: Tamara Knott, Jenny Lo, Richard Goff, and Mike Gregg from Engineering Education, Mary Leigh, Mike Zhang, John Cundiff, Dave Vaughan, and Foster Agblevor from Biological Systems Engineering, Ed Fox from computer science, G. V. Loganathan from civil and environmental engineering, Greg Adel of mining and minerals engineering, and John Muffo of the University's Academic Assessment Program.

Lohani, the project's principal investigator, said that the multidisciplinary effort "will serve as a model for promoting improved undergraduate pedagogy in the other 10 departments of the College of Engineering as well as in other engineering programs. The NSF grant comes on the heels of a 2003 NSF planning grant of $107,500 for its Bridges for Engineering Education program. That grant is creating a contemporary framework for undergraduate engineering pedagogy."

Biological Systems Engineering is a department that resides in both the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,600 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.

Consistently ranked by the National Science Foundation among the top 10 institutions in agricultural research, Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers students the opportunity to learn from some of the world's leading agricultural scientists. The college's comprehensive curriculum gives students a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. The college is a national leader in incorporating technology, biotechnology, computer applications, and other recent scientific advances into its teaching program.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.