The National Science Foundation awarded the University of Georgia a $495,754 NSF Research Traineeship-Innovations in Graduate Education (NRT-IGE) grant to institute a pilot graduate education program that gives students experiential learning opportunities prior to and throughout their graduate studies. The NRT-IGE students will learn problem-solving, interdisciplinary teamwork, leadership, communication and engagement.
The UGA NRT-IGE addresses the fact that “twenty-first century scientists and engineers must possess skills that enable them to reach beyond the laboratory, across disciplines and into communities to identify issues and develop solutions that increase both resilience and sustainability.”
During the summer before graduate studies begin, an eight-week “boot-camp” provides early exposure to professional skills training and the application of these skills to specific problems facing Georgia communities.
The boot camp is followed by a Challenge Course during the first semester of graduate training. The Challenge Course connects small, multidisciplinary teams to a Georgia community where they work together to solve a problem facing the partnership community. These partnerships will most likely come from UGA’s existing relationships through the Archway Partnership.
In addition to the long-term benefit of professional skills development for individual graduate students, the NSF panel summary also cited the potential societal impact as a strength of UGA’s proposal.
“UGA is both a land-grant and a sea-grant university and has a commitment to serving the citizens of this state. This project will help train a new generation of students in engaged scholarship, preparing them to be leaders in Georgia and beyond,” said Co-Principal Investigator Meredith Welch-Devine. “Our nation needs leaders who understand science and scientists who can communicate, and this program will work to produce those kinds of people.”
Dr. Suzanne Barbour, Dean of the Graduate School, believes that this approach could place the university as a forerunner in graduate education as the NRT-IGE training model emphasizes experiential learning and the “soft skills” that are essential to success but sometimes overlooked in more traditional graduate training.
“This is a big vote of confidence in UGA,” said Dean Barbour. “The NSF views us as a potential leader in graduate education.”
The NRT-IGE adapts the experiential learning model currently used in the healthcare professions. UGA will evaluate its effectiveness in graduate training in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The NSF panel surmised that this approach to graduate education would be scalable and transferrable to other schools, should it prove to be effective at UGA.
Previous instructional models focused on training graduate students for primarily academic careers. As this focus continues to shift, the UGA NRT-IGE will further challenge that notion and emphasize skills that enable future-scientists and engineers to be successful in both academic and non-academic careers.
Dr. Barbour said graduate programs have a moral obligation to prepare students for any job they take after graduation. Students and their families often sacrifice a lot during their time of study. She hopes that students trained using this model will find more satisfaction in their future careers.
The first group of 12-14 graduate students will begin in summer 2016.
The program will be led by Associate Dean of the Graduate School Julie Coffield, the Graduate School’s Director of Interdisciplinary Studies Meredith Welch-Devine, Associate Professor of Learning Design and Technology Ikseon Choi, Director Matthew L. Bishop of the Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Pathology K. Paige Carmichael.
The period of support begins Sept. 15, 2015 and ends Aug. 31, 2018.
This was the inaugural competition for the NSF’s Innovations in Graduate Education track.