New strategies on how to support interdisciplinary programs at the graduate level in higher education was the focus of a gathering of top-ranking academics in higher education.

The big question on everyone’s mind was what to do after federal funding ends.

Virginia Tech hosted the workshop for 45 graduate school deans from across the country. The participants discussed programs funded by the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), National Institutes of Health, Department of Education and other sources.

Keynote addresses and panel discussions addressed the complex problems in sustainability, energy, civil infrastructure, and public health that require researchers from different disciplines to work together. Interdisciplinary graduate training “can help students develop important skills such as teamwork, communication skills, critical and analytical thinking, adaptability, and time management,” said Maura Borrego, associate professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech.

Borrego, who holds a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for the development of methods that will better prepare faculty and graduate students for interdisciplinary research, arranged the meeting. Karen DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate education at Virginia Tech, co-sponsored the meeting with Borrego.

Borrego added, “The problem is universities and graduate programs are organized by traditional disciplines, which makes interdisciplinary work challenging. Graduate students and professors pursuing interdisciplinary research may be discouraged by their departments and feel isolated from like-minded colleagues.”

The workshop focused on graduate school deans because they can be “important advocates” for interdisciplinary programs, Borrego said, whereas professors often lead interdisciplinary programs, but only in their areas of expertise.

“Most importantly, graduate school deans can change policies to make it easier for students in one department to work with professors in another. Graduate deans can work across the university to get new interdisciplinary training programs approved and funded. They can ensure that interdisciplinary research is part of the core mission and values of the university. They can bring professors and students from different departments together to build a community of people who support interdisciplinary research. Each of these activities makes U.S. universities better environments for solving society’s most pressing problems,” Borrego said.

Future events are planned to keep the discussion going, including those hosted by and in conjunction with Virginia Tech Graduate School and Department of Engineering Education, Council of Graduate Schools, and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Graduate Education. A faculty workshop on developing interdisciplinary curriculum is planned for October 2012, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Share this story