Introducing the Future: Scieneering

Keri Swaby

Problems in the real world have become multi-dimensional and require the collective efforts of both scientists and engineers alike. In the wake of the BP oil spill, prizes were awarded to experts and entrepreneurs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields that could develop a method to efficiently clean up the Gulf Coast. To keep pace with further challenges, Virginia Tech and other noteworthy universities – Stanford, UC Berkley, and Purdue – are leading a new push towards the interdisciplinary studies of engineering and science.

Scieneering program was created in 2009 to help fill the void between scientists and engineers. “We ask students the questions and together they give us the answers,” said Scieneering director Keri Swaby. The program not only gives the independence needed for students to learn from one another, but also provides a laissez-faire style of teaching conducive to interdisciplinary learning.

Scieneering is a minor provided to all undergraduates who want to expand their horizon. Instead of structuring the curriculum, students have the option to choose from a pool of classes they want to pursue. Engineers take a variety of science-based courses, (vice-versa for scientists) and by doing so, Director Swaby hopes students will get a holistic understanding of what it truly means to be a Scieneer. “The opportunities in this program are endless,” said Danielle Smalls, a junior majoring in industrial systems engineering.

One of Scieenering’s eldest and brightest members, Smalls has seen the program grow from 30 to 120 members within three years. “The program is really starting to gain notoriety around campus,” said Smalls. “We all want to be given the opportunity to create our own success as students and that’s exactly what Scieneering provides.”

Professors throughout campus come to weekly seminars and give abridged presentations on their research. As well as lecturing, professors give recounts of their own experiences working with others outside of their profession; many say it is quite difficult digesting all the information received working as a collaborative unit, but cite effective group communication as the most challenging aspect of collaboration. “Communication is key! Professors from other disciplines will assume you understand what they are saying even though you might be completely lost,” echoed Smalls. “You have to force yourself and continue asking questions or else you will quickly fall behind.”

In 2010 Virginia Tech was awarded $1.4 million by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant. Thanks to their generous contribution, students in the program are now given a $2500 stipend, $1000 for research supplies, and a personal mentor to help guide their work on a research topic of their choosing. Members can even showcase their research at research conferences across the country; but it does not stop there.

Scieneering is only the beginning of a new field of studies coming to Virginia Tech. By 2015 the College of Science plans to offer five new majors: Computational Modeling and Analytics, Science Technology and Law, Nanoscience, and Systems Biology.

Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Today’s challenges are unprecedented. Problems are now multi-dimensional and have become too complex for just one expert to solve alone. Engineers, much like their scientist counterparts, have accrued many accomplishments; however, to progress, the two groups must work together. Thanks to the initiative taken by Virginia Tech and other schools, the name of the game has changed. Scieneering and other similar programs have removed the shackles off students in structured curriculums and have put the tools for a better future in their hands.

Author, Nahu, was a sophomore in biochemistry when this article published in the February 2014 issue of Engineers’ Forum.