Virginia Tech on path to connect research, education across many disciplines
September 19, 2019
Amanda Hayton is studying landscape architecture at Virginia Tech, but she is drawn to the challenges that rural communities face. She grew up in Winchester, Virginia, not too far from a rural part of West Virginia, and she said she already has seen problems, such as substance abuse, spill into her city.
With one year left until graduation, Hayton is exploring ways to use her career plan in landscape architecture to help rural communities. She is gaining valuable insight through a class this semester that conducts research on substance abuse recovery in Southwest Virginia.
Hayton was one of 10 students who gathered around a table in the campus’s Solitude house on a recent Thursday for the Appalachian Community Research course. Through the course, students track and report on the needs of people living in Virginia’s Appalachian region who are recovering from substance abuse and trying to find jobs.
“I took this course to get acclimated to these areas,” Hayton said. “It has really opened my eyes. This is the kind of work that I want to be a part of.”
Hayton’s experience represents a key goal for Virginia Tech — to encourage students and faculty to see the world and solve problems through a variety of lenses. The university’s Destination Areas program, now in its fourth year, aims to do that by spotlighting nine themes that stretch across disciplines for research and problem solving.
Hayton’s course is one of numerous classes now offered that fall under one or more of the university’s Destination Areas. Appalachian Community Research is tied to Global Systems Science, a Destination Area that studies connections between natural and social systems.
The class itself is a microcosm of interdisciplinary education. Along with Hayton’s landscape architecture major, her classmates are studying sociology, psychology, public health, and criminal justice.
Destination Areas stem from the university’s Beyond Boundaries vision, developed by President Tim Sands as a foundation for Virginia Tech’s future.
Since Thanassis Rikakis, former Virginia Tech provost, launched the Destination Areas in 2016, the university has designed courses connected to these areas and hired more than 100 faculty specifically to teach and conduct research within these themes. Additional faculty will be hired in the next year. Funding for these positions begins in the Provost’s Office. It is designed to encourage colleges to identify areas of synergy and collaboration so that faculty work across disciplinary lines.
Along with teaching, the Destination Areas continue to offer university-wide seed grant opportunities. This funding gives faculty from different departments and disciplines opportunties to work together on complex issues.
Also, several minors in the Pathways program, which is the university’s general education curriculum, are connected to at least two different Destination Areas. Plans are in the works to create more minors in the future, said Stephen Biscotte, director of general education.
On Sept. 20, the campus community is invited to a Fall Kick-Off event at the Inn at Virginia Tech to learn more about the goals of Destination Areas as well as grant opportunities. The event is hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Learning Systems Innovation and Effectiveness.
“We would like to feature Destination Areas as a hub for transdisciplinary education for students,” said Catherine Amelink, acting vice provost for learning systems innovation and effectiveness.
She and her colleague, Todd Nicewonger, travel to conferences to speak about the Destination Area initiative. Amelink often fields inquiries from other universities interested in the model.
“This approach is unique,” she said. “When other universities have looked to stake a claim in solving complex problems, they often pick one topic. The Destination Area infrastructure allows Virginia Tech to dynamically scaffold around topical areas and connect people and resources within and external to the university. There is a lot of flexiblity and room for creativity."
Wallace Santos Lages is the only professor in the School of Visual Arts with a Ph.D. in computer science. He was hired last year as an assistant professor for the Creativity + Innovation Destination Area, which brings together innovative technologies with creative practices.
“The school was looking for someone who could alternate between computer programming and art, and someone who could think about art in terms of technology,” he said.
It’s a good fit for Lages, who teaches a class on game design, a discipline in an industry that draws upon many skills, from artists to programmers, to create products.
This kind of transdisciplinary education is important for students, he said.
“Even if you’re working in your own discipline, it’s very good to know what happens around your specialty,” Lages said. “At large companies, people know how that is valuable.”
“As our Destination Areas continue to evolve and move forward, we are positioning these ‘centers of excellence’ to help capture the transdisciplinary capacity of the university community," said Cyril Clarke, executive Vice President and provost. "The DAs, together with research institutes and other transdisciplinary communities across Virginia Tech, advance our ability to recruit and connect talented faculty and students who can contribute their expertise to advancing the university’s Beyond Boundaries vision.”
Laura Hungerford, who heads the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, said she came to Virginia Tech in 2016 because of its transdisciplinary approach to teaching and research.
“The fact that the university valued this meant that we could grow a strong and interesting program,” Hungerford said. “That’s the opportunity at a place like this. All of the important public health problems are connected, and all of the disciplines can contribute.”
For example, faculty in her department often work in five of the Destination Areas — Global Systems Science, Data and Decisions, Adaptive Brain and Behavior, Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition, and +Policy.
And though Hungerford has hired new Destination Area faculty within her department, she said that many already naturally worked across colleges and disciplines. They don’t have to be a specific Destination Area hire to work in this way.
She said Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) motto leads to the kind of teamwork that the Destination Areas promote.
“People working with each other to solve problems and trying to overcome the barriers to help people and communities is an integral part of who we are at Virginia Tech,” Hungerford said.
— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone