The strict separation of basic and applied research has been showing cracks for decades, as scientists have been forced to find new approaches and develop new tools to confront increasingly complex challenges. Yet, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), few students are being trained to use the interdisciplinary strategies that are needed to confront many of today’s most important scientific problems.
That is about to change, with the help of Virginia Tech’s $1.4 million science education award from HHMI—the university’s first. The weakening wall between engineering and the life sciences is about to be torn down.
To help undergraduates acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to address the scientific challenges of the future, the school is developing a “Scieneering” minor that will unite life sciences with engineering. Students who pursue the Scieneering minor will take courses in departments outside their major and participate in seminars exploring topics at the interface of science and engineering. “They will also be required to complete their capstone research project in a laboratory outside their major discipline,” says Daniel Wubah, Virginia Tech’s vice president and dean for undergraduate education. “That means a biology major will need to do their research in an engineering lab and an engineering major will go to a chemistry, biology, or physics lab.”
The Scieneering program is Virginia Tech’s first step toward developing an interdisciplinary undergraduate biomedical engineering program, building on a successful biomedical engineering graduate program already on campus.
“The idea is to do something innovative for the students to prepare them for the challenges they will face in their future careers,” says Wubah. “It has been a goal of the administration to increase the number of students who get research experiences. That has been successful, but support of the Scieneering program will take us to the next level.”