Preparing researchers to work across disciplines is the goal of an NSF CAREER project

November 17, 2006

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $525,000 grant to Maura Borrego, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering's Department of Engineering Education (EngE), for development of methods that will better prepare faculty and graduate students for interdisciplinary research.

Borrego's five-year grant is a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award, the NSF's most prestigious award for creative junior faculty who are considered likely to become academic leaders of the future.

"Interdisciplinary approaches are necessary for solving our most critical technological and socio-technological research challenges," Borrego said. As research fields become more complex, a growing number of engineering faculty and students must adapt to working with researchers in other disciplines who are trained in different methods of evaluating research, seeking evidence and drawing conclusions.

A nanotechnology project, for example, might involve researchers from the fields of electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, physics and chemistry. Biotechnology research can link a number of disciplines, including engineering, biology, agriculture and veterinary medicine.

"There also are ethical and societal aspects of these and other advanced technology areas that can involve social science and humanities disciplines," Borrego said.

Interdisciplinary projects often require researchers to become familiar with a variety of specialized equipment and scientific vocabularies, as well as with different investigative methodologies.

To gain an understanding of the complexities of interdisciplinary research, Borrego will survey 1,000 faculty and 1,250 graduate students, representing more than 20 disciplines at four NSF Integrative Graduate Education Research and Training (IGERT) program sites nationwide. She also will conduct detailed interviews annually with 30 students.

"We hope to develop strategies to help faculty cultivate interdisciplinary skills among their graduate students, as well as assessment tools so faculty will know if the strategies are working," said Borrego, whose NSF research will build on current work in faculty interdisciplinary collaboration that she hopes to publish soon.

During the final two years of the five-year CAREER project, Borrego will present national dissemination workshops at Arizona State University, University of California at San Diego and University of Michigan, with the goal of training faculty and future faculty in interdisciplinary research strategies.

Borrego's project is among a select few in the field of engineering education that have been awarded CAREER grants by NSF. Her department at Virginia Tech has become a national leader in this field by establishing new graduate courses in engineering education and a redesigned undergraduate curriculum that provides classroom and hands-on laboratory training to more than 1,200 freshmen each year.

Since joining the Virginia Tech faculty spring semester 2005, Borrego has been named to the Engineering Dean's List for teaching excellence. In addition to teaching undergraduate EngE courses, she is developing graduate courses in engineering education assessment and research methods.

Borrego received her master's degree in 2000 and Ph.D. in 2003 from Stanford University and a bachelor's from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, all in materials science and engineering. She was a Semiconductor Research Corporation Graduate Fellow from 1998 to 2004 and received the Materials Research Society's Graduate Student Gold Award in 2001.

Virginia Tech

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