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Ecosystem vip ecker

A pioneering cross-disciplinary program accelerates student collaboration and growth

By Rob Emproto  |  Photography by John Griffin

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The VIP Program brings together students (like computer engineering major Joanna Lao), faculty and staff from across disciplines to work collaboratively to find solutions to complex problems.

Knowing how to collaborate effectively across diverse disciplines is essential for students preparing to tackle the vast 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 program at Georgia Tech and reached out 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 SBU 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.

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Robert Kukta, VIP Program co-director and senior associate dean for education and innovation, CEAS, sees the VIP initiative as a way for students to forge connections outside their major and learn how to collaborate across disciplines — a vital skill needed in today’s global job market.

“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, 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 has built and is racing a fleet of small programmable model cars and involving them in ethically charged accidents to uncover and address potential design issues.

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 (see video below).

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 a VIP team called BEAR, which stands for Bioengineering Education, Application and Research. Led by Ete Chan, research assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, together with Richard McKenna, undergraduate program director for the Department of Computer Science, the team’s goal is to develop solutions for various BEAR needs.

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Abdullah Hassan, biomedical engineering ’22, BEAR team member, appreciated that the structure of the program enabled him to work on a range of clinical and translational research studies, something that especially interested him as a pre-med student. “Each major brings its own skill set to the table,” Hassan added about the VIP experience. “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.”

“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, “said Chan. “Most importantly, students gain confidence from these practical experiences to help with their career development.”

Recent BEAR research projects include working on a mobile application to help train clinicians to repurpose anesthesia machines as ventilators during the COVID pandemic and a distance-sensing wearable device to assist visually impaired individuals in exercising more safely and independently.

“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 a Long Island sports camp for children with visual impairments and it’s rewarding to know our project will positively impact others.”

Focusing on the Future

“There’s a lot of buzz these days about the future of what work will be,” said VIP co-director Newman. “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 Department of Marketing and Communications/Stony Brook University.

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