As the Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP) concluded its first semester, the progress of its first cohort — harnessing interdisciplinary collaboration to explore some of the world’s greatest challenges — impressed the program’s namesake.

“I’m excited by it. I’m actually inspired by it,” said David Calhoun ’79, who made the Honors College program possible with a record-setting $20 millon donation. He visited the program’s students in December. “I want to use the word ‘satisfying,’ but I can’t use it yet because this is one of those long-term efforts.”

Last fall, 40 first-year students began the inaugural journey into this unique undergraduate learning experience. At the first semester’s end, they shared their most recent work with Calhoun, as well as the program’s leadership and industry partners.

“I feel amazed that I even have this opportunity,” said Shannon Aikens, a first-year student studying computational modeling and data analytics. “They’ve given us such great feedback and it’s very collaborative … It’s really preparing me ahead of time.”

David Calhoun
David Calhoun watches a demonstration.

From day one, CDP students are tasked with solving real-world issues by harnessing their natural senses of both curiosity and discovery. They break common academic barriers by collaborating across disciplines and expedite the traditional timetable for hands-on experience by immediately working alongside industry leaders.

“Even within the first semester, the Calhoun Discovery Program students are taking up the challenge of entering into a co-creation paradigm of their education with the faculty and industry mentors of the program,” said Thanassis Rikakis, the program’s founding director. “This experience allows them to better discover their knowledge pathways and goals, while also providing the feedback the faculty and industry partners need to continuously evolve the program to serve student needs.”

Throughout the semester, the students engaged in this new learning model with topics ranging from manned drone flights and virtual reality’s impact on the workforce to prison reform and the leveraging of social media for social justice. They worked hand-in-hand with experts from both the university and industry to curate mutually beneficial projects.

Along with a full four-year scholarship and an experiential learning grant of $2,500 each school year, CDP students also have 24/7 access to the Calhoun Discovery Studio in Hillcrest Hall. The studio, which includes its own prototype modeling area, serves as a headquarters for problem-solving through collaborative exploration.

“I know from my time as dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies just how powerful a studio environment can be,” said Paul Knox, founding dean of the Honors College. “Students learn from each other as well as the faculty; it becomes an innovation hub. When you have a transdisciplinary studio and include input from external partners, the power is magnified.”

In December, some of the earliest results of the program’s dynamic learning platform and environment were displayed during the semester’s final Industry Partner Day. The events, which occur multiple times throughout the semester, allow students to build mutually beneficial relationships over time with leaders of private industry and the nonprofit sector. On this particular day, students shared their latest concepts with leadership from Boeing, Caterpillar, and GE, as well as nonprofit Share Charlotte. Throughout the day, David Calhoun engaged with students, industry partners, and faculty, positively influencing the direction of the program.

David Calhoun
At the end of the fall semester, scholars in the Calhoun Discovery Program had the opportunity to share what they had worked on with David Calhoun and industry partners.

“It’s really awesome to hear his feedback,” said student Sam Eisenberg, who is studying industrial design systems and worked with a group on incorporating virtual reality into workforce development. “He talked [to us] about the human response to using our simulations and using an Xbox controller, versus some other type of controller, because it’s more recognizable [to the user].”

After graduating in 1979, Calhoun began a 26-year career with GE overseeing transportation, aircraft engines, reinsurance, lighting, and other GE units, before ultimately being appointed as vice chairman of the company and a member of GE's Board of Directors. He moved from GE to transform Nielsen into a global information and measurement company and then to Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms, where he served as senior managing director.  Calhoun started his new role as CEO of Boeing on Jan. 13.

“The support of the student discovery process by industry leaders like David Calhoun is instrumental,” Rikakis said. “It helps our students go beyond the right-or-wrong-answer knowledge paradigm and grow confident in using their education to grow both professionally and as a person.”

Calhoun was impressed with the students’ growth after just one semester of work, and he assured them that this was just the beginning of exercising their muscles in the program.

“That discovery muscle cannot be allowed to atrophy,” said Calhoun during a Q-and-A session with the students. “Trust me, it starts to atrophy the moment you take your foot off the pedal — and age does not help it. So, the whole motivation here with respect to our desire to do it at the undergraduate level relates to our wanting to exercise your discovery muscles in any way we can.”

The students will spend the next two semesters working on small group or individual applied projects, as well as on their chosen majors, before engaging in another semester of transdisciplinary collaborative projects in the spring of their second year. They will also engage in transdisciplinary collaborative projects with industry partners throughout their third and fourth years of study.

Ultimately, Calhoun believes this ongoing work will transform these students into a special group of collaborative and dynamic workers and leaders who are capable of taking on the world’s most significant challenges. He also believes the program’s format could serve as a model, not only for the rest of Virginia Tech, but across the spectrum of higher education.

“That’s one of the things I think about, the ripple effects. To me, that’s the reason you do it,” Calhoun said. “And, you know, I think the sky’s the limit.”

— Written by Travis Williams