The Evolution of Education
A pioneering cross-disciplinary program accelerates student collaboration and growth.
By Rob Emproto
Photography by John Griffin
The fast-tracking of the creation and distribution of a vaccine to combat COVID-19 is a true testament to the power and necessity of collaboration. Thousands of experts from dozens of fields, industries and government agencies across the globe connected to combat the greatest dilemma of our lifetime.
Knowing how to collaborate effectively across diverse disciplines is essential for students preparing to tackle the challenges facing our planet. And thanks to a forward-thinking program initiated in 2018, Stony Brook students are already ahead of the game.
The VIP (Vertically Integrated Projects) Program unites undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members in multidisciplinary teams to work on long-term, real-world projects in research, design and entrepreneurship. The program, based in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS), pushes collaboration to the forefront, accelerating innovation and delivering a broad-range of cross-disciplinary skills to students that would be difficult to obtain in a more conventional curriculum.
Robert Kukta, senior associate dean for education and innovation, CEAS, and the driving force behind VIP, said the initiative is changing the very definition of what it means to have a Stony Brook education.
“Students and recent graduates identify closely with their major — that won’t change, but we want to provide another dimension,” said Kukta, who is also an associate professor in mechanical engineering.
Kukta observed a need to break free of the traditional classroom, where projects are limited to a single semester and students are aligned in the same discipline. He added that students also need time to discover how they can contribute to a multidisciplinary team, and if they can’t do that in college they will have to learn in the workforce. While pursuing this vision, he discovered the VIP Consortium and connected with the VIP Program at Georgia Tech for advice on launching the program at Stony Brook.
While Stony Brook’s VIP Program would be led by engineering, the target was university-wide engagement from the start. As Kukta engaged other colleges and schools, he found a strong advocate in Elizabeth Newman, then associate dean for curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Newman, now vice provost for curriculum and undergraduate education, recognized the value of participation from arts and humanities. She helped build broad interest in the program and as co-director works to expand these hands-on, collaborative opportunities for students from all disciplines.
SBU’s VIP Program debuted in Spring 2019 with eight teams and about 50 students. After only two years, the popular program has grown to 28 teams and has engaged more than 500 students. Students can apply to join any team that interests them and earn credit each semester for as long as they choose to participate.
“Broad collaboration is important for engineering education,” said Kukta. “But it is also essential for developing technological solutions for the good of society. With technology driving our society toward an uncertain future — consider artificial intelligence (AI) for example — we can’t rely on computer scientists or engineers to make the right decisions; we need input from a cross-section of the community.”
Illustrating this point, one of the research teams, Automotive Ethics, explores the ethical issues associated with self-driving cars — such as how to program them not to make biased decisions — and includes students representing eight different disciplines. It’s composed of juniors, seniors, advanced master’s and two doctoral students — one from philosophy and one from technology and society.
The team plans to answer the question: Can we program ethical norms and principles into a self-driving car’s AI, and if so, how? They have built and are racing a fleet of small programmable model cars and involving them in ethically charged accidents in a new ethics lab.
“The advent of Automated Vehicles (AVs) promises to reduce the societal burden of car accidents and is expected to transform cities, transportation, disability support and much more. But it will also require ethical decision-making on the road,” said VIP mentor Wolf Schäfer, professor and chair of Stony Brook’s Department of Technology and Society. “Only the teamwork of electrical engineers, computer scientists, applied mathematicians, moral philosophers and social scientists can design a morally competent AV.”
Input from the humanities in science projects that are oriented toward developments that will change the social landscape — as self-driving vehicles would do — is important, according to Ethan Hallerman, a philosophy doctoral student. “Scientists need to understand the social context their work arrives in, but it’s just as important for humanists to understand the workshops in which new technologies are built if they hope to interpret them in a meaningful way.”
The Crossroads of Engineering and Medicine
Perhaps no area has been impacted by the need for cross-disciplinary input more than medicine, where the link with engineering becomes tighter and more apparent every day.
In 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Lauren Maloney ’12, MD ’16, clinical assistant professor, Department of Emergency Medicine and one of VIP’s faculty mentors, spearheaded an effort to improve the safety of healthcare workers, leading an ad hoc interdisciplinary team of physicians, student engineers and paramedics in the creation of a patient particle containment chamber to help contain the virus and protect front-line medical personnel.
Maloney said that this collaborative teamwork and creativity not only illustrates the unique experience of Stony Brook’s VIP Program, it also pays dividends in the real world.
“These students are the experts who ultimately join healthcare professions,” she said. “In this program, they’re tackling real-life clinical problems. Bringing together all these stakeholders fosters a true language of medical device innovation and understanding of what clinicians need and not just what they want. Learning how to understand each other’s language is crucial for the future of medicine-driven engineering.”
Another group bisecting medicine and technology is The Brain Team, which focuses on advancing our understanding of the neurobiology of major depressive disorder. It includes biology and neuroscience students, as well as from chemistry, math and the humanities.
“This project involves brain biology, the physics and chemistry of neuroimaging, and statistical analysis,” said Christine DeLorenzo, associate professor of psychiatry and the team’s advisor. “But there’s also a great deal of reading the literature and writing. So the more diversity this group has, the better they will be able to handle the project, because everyone brings a different skill and perspective.”
DeLorenzo said this often brings a challenge when writing a paper because each person is used to the convention of their fields. “The students can see how challenging it is to write clearly enough that someone from another discipline can understand and contribute,” she said. “It lets them see firsthand the importance of clarity in scientific communication.”
Students majoring in English, creative writing and journalism provide input on the best way to clearly convey all of the information the scientists discover.
“The VIP Program has been a really great experience for me,” said Brain Team member Daniel Sunko, biochemistry ’22. “From the start, emphasis has been put on the reality of the work being done, in the sense that it has real potential in the academic world, which makes it feel important and impactful.”
Ete Chan, research assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), together with Richard McKenna, undergraduate program director for the Department of Computer Science, leads a VIP team called BEAR, which stands for Bioengineering Education, Application and Research.
“Our goal is to develop solutions for various BEAR needs,” said Chan. “We provide mentorship to our students to not only carry out our projects but also to develop soft skills such as communication, teamwork and time management. Most importantly, students gain confidence from these practical experiences to help with their career development.”
The BEAR team comprises students from different academic standings and majors across campus who work together on a range of projects. Recent research projects include working on a mobile application to help train clinicians to repurpose anesthesia machines as ventilators during the COVID pandemic; a distance-sensing wearable device to assist visually impaired individuals in exercising more safely and independently; and a BME curriculum for promoting engineering education to middle school children.
“Working alongside primarily computer science students has opened me to a world of coding that I did not expect and also taught me to simplify technical jargon and explain what we are doing in a better way,” said team member Victoria See, an applied mathematics and statistics major. “We created a web app for the staff at Camp Abilities [a Long Island sports camp for children with visual impairments] and it’s rewarding to know our project will positively impact others.”
“The structure of the program enabled me to work on a range of clinical and translational research studies, something that especially interested me as a pre-med student,” said team member Abdullah Hassan, biomedical engineering ‘22. “I collaborated with a physician from Stony Brook University Hospital and the computer science side of the VIP team on an application that served as an aid for the use of ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Hassan also presented the team’s work at the Biomedical Engineering Society’s National Conference and worked on the Institutional Review Board approval process for another study in conjunction with a team from Stony Brook University Hospital. “Each major brings its own skill set to the table,” Hassan added. “That’s where I noticed the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration. It allows for us to come up with much more nuanced and complete ideas for whatever project we’re working on.”
Gaming in the Classroom
VIP co-director Newman brings her perspective as a historical and environmental archaeologist to the technology-based challenge facing her project, “Conquest! Gaming History.” This team brings historians and coders together with educators, business and an array of liberal arts students to build a platform that will allow those teaching history to create text-based historical simulations for classroom use. The idea grew out of a course on Aztec civilization that she has taught for years.
“A key part of that course is a project-based experiential mock trial of the murder of the Emperor Montezuma. We have costumes and the students really have fun with it,” she said. “There was no way I was going to be able to do that in a virtual environment.”
But she could try to replicate that energy by creating an online asynchronous simulation game. Students come into the team looking at everything from how to build the game to determining its educational effectiveness. Newman said that classes focused on the arts teach creative thought, idea generation and the ability to apply technical skills, all of which are valuable in any field.
“There’s a lot of buzz these days about the future of what work will be,” she said. “At the core of this program are students who have technical skills and competencies, and creative and flexible brains. My hope is that the VIP Program can create an environment where we can foster these things to coexist with digital intelligence. One of the things I want students to get out of this is really an understanding of just how life works. For years now, I’ve heard from students about how they hate group projects. And I always say ‘life is a group project. Everything is teamwork.’ And I think that these activities really highlight that.”
And that, said Kukta, is the ultimate goal of the VIP Program.“We’re moving further into a reliance on technology, but employers are crying for teamwork and communication skills,” said Kukta. “We need to develop people who are self-motivated learners and leaders. That is the experience we bring to students.”
Visit the VIP Program website to learn more about current research projects.
Rob Emproto is a writer/multimedia journalist in the Office of Marketing and Communications.