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Five departments recognized with 2008 University Exemplary Department Award


BLACKSBURG, Va., Dec. 1, 2008 – The Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering, the School of Architecture + Design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences' Undergraduate Research Institute, and a pair of departments working together, the Department of History and the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education, will all receive the 2008 University Exemplary Department Award at a ceremony to be held Tuesday, Dec. 2 at The Inn at Virginia Tech.

Presented annually since 1994, the University Exemplary Department Award recognizes the work of departments or programs that maintain a first-class teaching and learning environment for students and faculty.

This year, the awards were presented to departments that work collaboratively across departmental boundaries to fulfill common or complementary goals.

“The University Exemplary Department Award program acknowledges teamwork and the collaborative efforts and successes of groups of dedicated colleagues,” said Mark McNamee, senior vice president and provost, “These team efforts make the university better, and benefit the students who count on us to provide the highest quality education possible. This year’s theme focused on interdepartmental collaboration, which is increasingly becoming more important as traditional pedagogical boundaries are blurring more and more.”

A complete list of past Exemplary Department Award winners, along with the theme of the award for each year, is available online.

At the Dec. 2 awards ceremony, McNamee and Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger will present a plaque and a cash award to a representative of each winning department.

  • $15,000 will be presented to Dennis Kafura, professor and former head of the Department of Computer Science on behalf of the department.
  • $10,000 will be presented to Scott Poole, professor and director of the School of Architecture + Design, on behalf of the school.
  • $7,500 will be presented to Diana Ridgwell, director of student development for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences on behalf of the faculty and staff of the Undergraduate Research Institute.
  • Both Daniel Thorp, associate professor and chair of the Department of History, and Susan Asselin, professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning, will accept a $7,500 cash award on behalf of their respective departments.

Department of Computer Science, College of Engineering

For many years, faculty in the Department of Compute r Science have engaged with dozens of departments across all colleges in a wide range of projects, partnerships, and learning programs.

For example, computer science works with faculty in the Pamplin College of Business and the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in offering the Master of Information Technology (MIT) degree program in the National Capital Region and in Mumbai, India.

Parviz Ghandforoush, managing director of the MIT program noted in his letter of support that the “participation of computer science has been a major factor in the program’s success.”

Computer science played a key role in the planning, course development, and creation of the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology. Offered the past five years, the program is offered jointly through a collaboration between the departments of computer science; biochemistry; biology; crop and soil environmental sciences; mathematics; plant pathology, physiology and weed science; and statistics.

“The broad range of disciplines that have collaborated with computer science on projects demonstrates their commitment to advancing the university and global society,” noted Steven D. Sheetz, director of the Center for Global Electronic Commerce, in a letter supporting the department’s nomination. The department’s involvement in the Living In the Knowledge Society project, for example, helps to “continuously improve the educational experiences of students,” added Sheetz.

The university-wide Center for Human Computer Interaction engages many computer science faculty. Over the years, the center has been involved in dozens of collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects, including the Blacksburg Electronic Village, the Virtual Town Square project also with the Town of Blacksburg and other academic units, the Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Perhaps one of the department’s most visible and high-impact collaborations came when it partnered with Information Technology and the College of Engineering to build the System X supercomputer in 2003. Computer science faculty provided the leadership in designing the system itself and in work with vendors to achieve a remarkable computing milestone at such a low cost. And in the years following its creation, computer science faculty have worked with other departments to make this resource available to other researchers.

“Computing is an enabling technology,” noted Ishwar Puri, professor and head of the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. “By its very nature, it supports virtually every aspect of the teaching and research mission of the university. It should not be surprising that computer science has been active in collaborative activities across campus.”

School of Architecture + Design, College of Architecture and Urban Studies

When the School of Architecture + Design — which includes the programs of architecture, industrial design, interior design, and landscape architecture — was formally established in 2003, it was done so with the vision of fostering a collegial, highly collaborative, and creatively prolife environment for teaching, research, and engagement.

Accordingly, the school since has collaborated with faculty from more than a dozen disciplines from nearly every college in the university.

In 2005, for example, the award-winning Solar House was realized through collaboration among seven distinct disciplines in three colleges.

Likewise, in 2006, the PAWS Project, which focused on developing new products and systems to enhance the lives of the elderly and their pets, involved faculty from six disciplines in four colleges. That project was led by Ed Dorsa, associate professor of architecture, and was sponsored by Proctor and Gamble.

And the Phoebe’s Field Exhibit project, which provides middle school students with innovative ways to learn scientific concepts, involved 10 faculty from seven disciplines in four colleges. That project was led by Mitzi Vernon, associate professor of architecture and funded by the National Science Foundation.

“While the School of Architecture + Design has long-running cross-disciplinary involvement with predictable collaborators like engineering, some of our recent collaborations involve highly unlikely partners,” noted Poole.

Another, for example, occurred in 2005 when researchers Taranjiit Kaur and Jatinder Singh from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine needed a portable laboratory to conduct their studies on disease transmission between humans and chimpanzees. The following year, an innovative mobile research laboratory to house the two researchers was designed and built by a team led by Matt Lutz, assistant professor of interior design, and a group of students from the school’s interiors, industrial design, and architecture programs.

The resulting structure, P.L.U.G. or Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground, was installed in Africa’s Mahale Mountains National Park by a team of two graduate students in summer 2007.

Locally, student and faculty from all disciplines in the school helped to design and participated in the construction of the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” house located in Blacksburg and televised on ABC Television in 2006. And this year, architecture and interior design students and faculty are designing houses in collaboration with the New River Valley Chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Regionally, the school partnered with the Science Museum of Virginia to install and exhibit the Solar House in 2007. Also that year, the school worked with the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects on the symposium, “Digital Craft.”

“Whether they are within the four disciplines of the School of Architecture + Design or with partners outside our school, college and university, we aspire to test new ideas in an environment of trust and respect, said Poole.

Undergraduate Research Institute, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

In just three short years in which it went from a concept to a fully functioning unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the Undergraduate Research Institute has made extraordinary progress toward fulfilling its mission to expose undergraduate students to investigation, inquiry, and creative expression in the liberal arts and human sciences; to enhance opportunities for advanced research initiatives; to elevate the visibility of that research; and to provide access to resources for student development and faculty mentorship.

That progress has touched the lives of many Virginia Tech undergraduates, including 59 who have been matched with faculty mentors in research activities. And through a competitive grant process, 29 students have received a total of $16,000 in funding to further their research.

And dozens more student have received mentoring and support as they presented their research at undergraduate research conferences sponsored by departments, the university, and other venues such as the ACC Undergraduate Research Conference.

To further help students find research opportunities, the college has created the course, Survey of Research Methods in the Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and received a Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching grant to develop modules for an online undergraduate research course to help students in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

And to cap it off, the college plans to publish an undergraduate research journal, Philologia, this spring.

Dozens of current students and recent graduates who utilized the Undergraduate Research Institute wrote letters in support for the institute’s nomination for the University Exemplary Department Award. One such letter, from current theatre arts student Whitney Moore, captures how most students feel about this special opportunity.

“I am thankful for my multidimensional education experiences that would not have been possible without the [institute]. I would never have been exposed to this type of research. I had never had a research experience before working with the Undergraduate Research Institute and it has inspired me to want to do more in the future.”

Department of History and Department of Teaching and Learning, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

For the past seven years, these two departments have worked together on a series of projects with a common goal — to provide enhanced training and tools for K-12 teachers of history and social studies in Virginia.

Because of their collaboration, their projects have received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, and other state and federal agencies totaling more than $2 million, and have helped more than 100 teachers enhance their skills in the classroom, and have made new and innovative teaching materials available to many more.

The largest and longest running example of their collaboration has been their work with area school districts in the Teaching American History Program. Over the past five years, eight faculty members from the two departments have helped the Montgomery County Public Schools and a consortium of Roanoke area schools to receive grants in support of the Teaching American History Program.

And because of the success of these efforts in Southwest Virginia, faculty from these two departments are now working with schools across the commonwealth.

A second collaboration between the two departments has had an even broader impact. In 2003, a team of 11 faculty and graduate students from four departments, including these two, received a $140,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop The Digital History Reader, a set of on line materials appropriate for use in university or high school courses in modern European History and the history of the United States.

By creating lesson modules in a digital environment; by integrating written texts with images, video, and audio materials; and by designing sites that teach student to think historically and to place text within context, The Digital History Reader addressed the critical need for rigorous, engaging, user-friendly, and easily accessible digital instructional materials on United States and European history.

“For nearly a decade, members of the departments of history and teaching and learning have worked collaboratively toward a common goal — giving teachers the tools and skills they need to provide their students a challenging and rewarding experience in the classroom,” said Thorp.