Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors announced today that six departments and programs have been honored with University Exemplary Department Awards for collaborating across departmental boundaries to achieve common goals.

The departments of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), materials science and engineering (MSE), and physics received the top $10,000 Exemplary Department Award. The Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies received a $5,000 award, and another $5,000 award went to the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures' French section and the Pamplin College of Business Graduate and International Programs. Provost Mark McNamee presented the awards.

The Office of the Provost established the awards in 1994 to recognize the work of departments and/or programs that maintain exemplary teaching and learning environments for students and faculty. Each year, the awards committee selects a different focus for recognition.

"Collaborations among faculty from different departments enrich the university's educational and research efforts. In recent years, such collaborations have become increasingly important since many new fields of study cross a number of disciplinary boundaries," said Ron Daniel, associate provost for undergraduate education, who oversees the Exemplary Department Awards program. "The provost's office is pleased to see such strong working relationships being forged throughout the university."

Electrical and Computer Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Physics

The top award recognizes a program that draws on expertise from three different departments, two in the College of Engineering and one in the College of Science. About five years ago, a group of faculty in ECE, MSE, and physics initiated a collaboration aimed at strengthening Virginia Tech's academic and research programs in the related and increasingly important fields of microelectronics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology. These colleagues realized that "it was essential to reinvent the way in which these subjects were taught and the manner in which we conducted research," said Robert Hendricks, professor of ECE and MSE and a leader in the collaboration.

With support from the Pratt Foundation and the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium, the faculty team and their departments established the Center for Microelectronics, Optoelectronics, and Nanotechnology (MicrON). "The departments have worked very closely to develop integrated, cross-disciplinary curricula and to establish central facilities that advance the research activities of faculty throughout the university and foster interdisciplinary collaborations," commented James Heflin, associate professor of physics.

The collaborative efforts of the departments and faculty associated with MicrON have resulted in significant advances in a short time. In 1999 the group won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that it has used to develop a curriculum consisting of more than 10 sophomore- to graduate-level courses spanning the fields of microelectronics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology.

It also obtained funding to build and equip four teaching and research laboratories, including a semiconductor fabrication cleanroom and a state-of-the-art metal organic chemical vapor deposition lab for "growing" semiconductor wafers.

Faculty collaborations have led to a number of new research grants and projects, along with funding to support graduate students from several departments. Another major accomplishment is the development of a proposal for a minor in microelectronics engineering.

"We have a group of faculty members who, given the opportunity and the encouragement of the administration, came together in a cohesive team to make it all happen," Hendricks said.

Virginia Tech students have been the major beneficiaries of this collaboration. David Gray, who earned his bachelor's degree in ECE and master's in MSE and is now a Ph.D. student in MSE, has watched the program evolve. "I have seen a dramatic broadening of the scope of courses, a more diverse student body involved in the area, and a more complete personal understanding of the field," Gray said.

Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies

One of the two $5,000 awards went to a program that was founded in 1985. That program, the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS), is a cooperative venture of STS faculty and the departments of history, philosophy, political science, and sociology.

Additional participants come from such diverse disciplines as Appalachian studies, architecture, communication, English, geography, mathematics, teaching and learning, urban affairs and planning, and women's studies. STS graduate students also hail from a wide range of backgrounds, including the natural and physical sciences, engineering, numerous professional disciplines, history, anthropology/sociology, political science, and philosophy.

Students in the program analyze the ways society affects the development and implementation of scientific and technological knowledge, as well as how scientific and technological pursuits affect people. "The students emerge able to identify and examine the social, cultural, historical, political, and intellectual contexts for understanding science and technology in today's rich and complicated world," commented Valerie Hardcastle, STS program director.

The five-unit STS program has more than 100 graduate students enrolled at its Blacksburg and Northern Virginia campuses. STS boasts of a 100 percent placement rate for its graduates, whose career paths range from holding tenured positions at top research universities to forging technology policy with the Department of Defense to running historical archives at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The STS program is active in both the public and university communities. Choices and Challenges, an on-going theme-based public forum that examines the impact science and technology have on everyday lives and decisions, has been a premier outreach program for more than 20 years. It reaches about 25,000 people annually through its Public Broadcasting System features, the annual forum, and digital learning modules. STS graduate students help run the forum, prepare the broadcasts, create the learning modules, and then use these modules in their own courses.

In addition, STS graduate students teach a course to engineering undergraduates called Engineering Cultures, in which students learn how engineering is practiced in other nations.

The program also sponsors an on-going weekly speaker series and maintains an annual graduate student conference on Science and Technology Policy funded by NSF. Last year, the Graduate Student Organization for STS received the University Student Leadership Award's Outstanding Achievement for an Organization Award.

Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and Pamplin College of Business Graduate and International Programs

The second $5,000 award recognizes an effective instructional project. The French section of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Pamplin College of Business Graduate and International Programs developed an instructional project that promotes interdisciplinary learning and cross cultural experiences.

The two programs cooperated to win a Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This project is an outgrowth of a successful five-year working relationship between Virginia Tech and the highly regarded French grande école Institut National des Télécommunications.

Along with this international partnership, the collaboration has helped improve study-abroad programs that combine the study of international business with the study of foreign language and culture. Courses have been created and expanded, and a lecture series on international business has been launched.

"Faculty from Pamplin and the French program have worked together to plan and evaluate study-abroad programs where our students learn how differences between countries affect business practices and perceptions," said Pamplin Dean Richard E. Sorensen.

Sharon P. Johnson, assistant professor of French; Richard L. Shryock, associate professor of French; and Robert T. Sumichrast, former associate dean of Graduate and International Programs in the Pamplin College, have led this collaboration between the programs.

"The dual degree curricular initiatives provide our students with a world-class education. We believe that the undertakings can serve as a practical model for the internationalization of other units at the university," said Jerry Niles, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Aside from providing a model for language faculty to work with faculty from professional schools, the collaboration has established a structure that enables students to demonstrate what they know and can do with language in their professional fields. It addresses needs of learners who are knowledgeable in business content but who are learning to become proficient in a language. It also helps students who specialize in French to study business content courses in that language.

Additional grants are being pursued with the goal of winning designation for Virginia Tech as a U.S. Department of Education Center for International Business Education and Research.

Liz Crumbley, Jean Elliott, and Sookhan Ho contributed to this release.

Share this story