Campus News

NSF grant will used for new pilot graduate education program

The National Science ­Foundation has awarded UGA a $495,754 grant to institute a pilot graduate education program that will give students experiential learning opportunities prior to and throughout their studies.

Students in the Research ­Traineeship-Innovations in Graduate Education program will learn about problem solving, interdisciplinary teamwork, leadership, communication and engagement.

The new program will address the reality that “21st-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.” It will be led by Julie Coffield, an associate dean in the Graduate School; Meredith Welch-Devine, the Graduate School’s director of interdisciplinary studies; Ikseon Choi, an associate professor of learning design and technology in the College of Education; Matthew L. Bishop, director of public service and outreach’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development; and K. Paige Carmichael, Meigs Professor of Pathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

During the summer before their graduate studies begin, students in the program will attend an eight-week “boot camp.” There, they will get early exposure to professional skills training and the application of these skills to specific problems facing Georgia communities.

The boot camp will be followed by a challenge course exercise during the first semester of graduate training.

The exercise will connect small, multidisciplinary teams to a Georgia community where they work together to solve a problem facing the partnership community. These partnerships most likely will come from UGA’s existing relationships through the Archway Partnership, a public service and outreach unit.

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, according to Welch-Devine.

“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,” she said. “Our nation needs leaders who understand science and scientists who can communicate, and this program will work to produce those kinds of people.”

Because the training model emphasizes experiential learning and the soft skills that are essential to success—but sometimes are overlooked in more traditional graduate training—the approach could place UGA as a forerunner in graduate education, said to Suzanne Barbour, dean of the Graduate School.

“This is a big vote of confidence in UGA,” she said. “The NSF views us as a potential leader in graduate education.”

The NRT-IGE program adapts the experiential learning model currently used in the health care professions. UGA will evaluate its effectiveness in graduate training in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Should the program prove to be effective at UGA, it might be scalable and transferrable to other schools.

Previous instructional models primarily focused on training graduate students for academic careers. As this focus continues to shift, UGA’s graduate education program will challenge that notion and emphasize skills that enable future scientists and engineers to be successful in both academic and nonacademic careers.

“Graduate programs have a moral obligation to prepare students for any job they take after graduation,” Barbour said. “Students and their families often sacrifice a lot during their time of study. The hope is that students trained using this model will find more satisfaction in their future careers.”

The first group of 12-14 graduate students will begin the program in summer 2016.

The period of support began Sept. 15 and ends Aug. 31, 2018.

This was the inaugural competition for the NSF’s Innovations in Graduate Education track.