Dave Christofaro recently visited the Calhoun Discovery Program at the Virginia Tech Honors College seeking fresh perspective on important issues.

“Corporations don’t have all the answers,” said Christofaro, executive account manager at Teradata Corporation, an international provider of database and analytics-related software, products, and services. “This is a way Generation Z can say, 'hey, have you thought about this?' ”

Teradata is one of a handful of organizations who have partnered with the Calhoun Discovery Program and recently came to campus for their first joint meeting with the program’s inaugural cohort. During the three-day visit, the industry partners presented the 41 Calhoun Discovery Scholars with a series of real-world issues, met with students one-on-one, and ultimately worked with program faculty to assign interdisciplinary teams with topics to explore during the fall semester.

“When we put together teams in industry, we put people from different disciplines on a team,” said Chip Blankenship, former CEO of GE Applications and Calhoun Discovery Program Distinguished Visiting Leader. “The fact that we’re doing it with freshmen right here is very interesting.”

Issues presented to the students ranged from reimagining high-tech manufacturing and investigating issues surrounding drone travel to exploring the alternative energy sources and the hindrances for upward economic mobility. Throughout the semester, the industry partners will return multiple times for more joint meetings and to individually collaborate with students and faculty in a variety of ways.

Made possible by alumnus David Calhoun’s record-setting $20 million donation, the Calhoun Discovery Program aims to reshape traditional higher education by teaming together high-achieving students from vastly different majors and tasking them with exploring real-world problems.

“Taking this transdisciplinary approach really allows people to begin to look at problems and themselves in different ways,” said Thanassis Rikakis, the program’s founding director. “There’s such a richness of perspectives that comes together, and that’s what we’re beginning to see.”

People working around a desk
Thanassis Rikakis (center-left) reviews content with industry partners.

To help form this program, Rikakis, the former Virginia Tech provost, tapped into the same vision he used when leading the establishment of the university-wide transdisciplinary discovery communities, known as Destination Areas, and leaned heavily on the Beyond Boundaries vision as a roadmap. He also emphasized students having cross-sector experiences, such as working relationships with industry and nonprofit leaders, from the students’ earliest days at the university. These relationships, when combined with the program structure, lead Honors College Dean Paul Knox to believe students will be better prepared for a global economy.

“Instead of waiting until they get out to be thrown in with one another in the workplace, the idea with the Calhoun Program is they work together across disciplines and with industry from day one,” Knox said. “The industry leaders' recent visit with our students marks a milestone in pursuing that end.”

The program received thousands of applications and did hundreds of interviews in selecting the 41 high-achieving students who began at Virginia Tech this fall as the first class of Calhoun Discovery Scholars.

“I got in to Cornell University, so that was my other choice, until I got in here [the Calhoun Discovery Program],” said student Sam Eisenberg.

The high level of students and the potential to reimagine how students are prepared for the workforce also drew much attention from top-notch companies and nonprofits.

Man works with student
Robert Smith of Boeing works with a student.

“New hires are typically ineffective in the workforce because they know their discipline, but they don’t know how to collaborate or how to do things with other people,” said Robert Smith, Boeing Technical Fellow and Calhoun Discovery Program Distinguished Professor of Practice.

Smith said being able to help craft a learning environment more closely aligned with the diverse skills needed in real world employment very much motivated the company’s commitment. He said this was the first time Boeing had placed a professor at a university in this way.

“We want people who engage in a lot of activities, know how to work in teams, listen to different perspectives, and give everyone a voice,” Smith said. “People who already have that as part of their mindset when they come to us, they just make better employees.”

Tapping into the brainpower of the Calhoun scholars was another motivating factor for industry partners, such as Bank of America, which teamed up with Teradata and the nonprofit SHARE Charlotte to present a problem on economic mobility to the students.

Man speaks to students
Joel McPhee of Bank of America

“What we really find interesting about Calhoun is that through this interdisciplinary approach in tackling problems they can really put fresh eyes on problems and can help to drive really sustainable, viable solutions,” said Joel McPhee, risk executive at Bank of America.

Generating new ideas and possible solutions excites Amy Jacobs, executive director of SHARE Charlotte, especially at a time when the Charlotte-based platform for connecting with local nonprofits is beginning to be replicated in communities across the country.

“Solutions we identify here are likely scalable to other communities, and we can share them through our sister cities as they come online, like SHARE Omaha,” Jacobs said. “The timing might just be perfect.”

Man speaks with student
Chip Blankenship, former CEO of GE Applications and Calhoun Discovery Program Distinguished Visiting Leader. Blankenship graduated in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering from Virginia Tech. He was was inducted into the university's Academy of Engineering Excellence in 2014.

The opportunity to have an impact from day one of the college experience is a special feature of the Calhoun Discovery Program, and is something that causes students to light up.

“Right off the bat we’re already doing really serious stuff. These are real issues that these companies are facing and to actually be able to try and solve them with them, that’s really cool,” said Calhoun scholar William Poland, who chose the program over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s an amazing opportunity, I don’t know who else gets that.”

Hitting the ground running in such a way has allowed students like Sumaiya Haque to already begin seeing the program’s impact on their education.

“I remember being really excited when I first got accepted, but actually being here has really opened my eyes to how amazing the program is and how much I’ve grown in a month,” Haque said. “Working with people from completely different majors and who have completely different outlooks, it has already taught me how to collaborate better and how to better see different people’s strengths.”

— Written by Travis Williams  

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