June 24, 2017
June 24, 2017
June 28, 2017
An interdisciplinary approach to research is essential to solving the complex global problems of the 21st century. In order to tackle these multifaceted problems, undergraduates need to gain interdisciplinary experiences beyond the knowledge and skills of their disciplinary silos. Interdisciplinary experiences help students to develop appreciation for other disciplines, enabling them to integrate and analyze various disciplinary perspectives by critically thinking through them, and ultimately helping them to envision innovative solutions to complex problems. These experiences also assist students in understanding the limitations and weaknesses of their own disciplines. Undergraduate experiential interdisciplinary learning experiences are a priority defined by the president of Virginia Tech as it relates to the broader visionary goals of the University. Within this context, the Learning Enhanced Watershed Assessment System (LEWAS) is a high-frequency, real-time environmental monitoring lab located on the campus of Virginia Tech. Since the lab started in 2008 it has been utilized in 26 undergraduate courses at 8 community colleges and universities across 3 continents, via its experiential learning initiatives. It has an interdisciplinary team that consists of two faculty members, one post doc, five graduate students and six undergraduate students from various academic backgrounds including engineering education, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, civil and environmental engineering, chemical engineering, biological systems engineering, crop & soil environmental science, and biology. The benefits for undergraduates engaged in this interdisciplinary research lab are the focus of this paper. These are based on the personal experiences of five undergraduates, from five engineering majors, who are engaged in this lab. Each one of these five undergraduates has had either a graduate or a postdoc mentor and a faculty advisor. They have been engaged with the lab for various lengths of time from 2 semesters to 5 years, and each one typically works there for 5-10 hours per week. Further details about these undergraduates will be elaborated on in the paper. Being involved with various interdisciplinary real-world research projects with team members from multiple disciplines has helped these undergraduates to gain experiences outside their own disciplines. This has aided them in developing diverse skill sets that are described in terms of: interdisciplinary experiences, links between their classroom learning and lab experiences, academic and professional skills, impacts of faculty and graduate mentoring, and impacts on academic and career decisions.
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