Virginia Tech Provost Thanassis Rikakis meets with members of the Order of the Gavel,
a student leader group, to discuss the Beyond Boundaries initiative. Photo by Logan Wallace.

by Mason Adams

How do we solve complex, 21st-century problems and prepare the workforce of the future for careers in fields that do not even exist today?

At Virginia Tech, educators and administrators are tackling the challenge together, using a model of collaborative leadership that encourages big-picture, multidimensional solutions.

The collaborative leadership method brings together individuals with deep subject-matter expertise, the ability to develop relationships and work with those from different backgrounds, experience built across sectors, and a desire to serve the greater good.

If that approach sounds familiar, it should: These are at the core of the VT-shaped experience in which students are immersed. They are also qualities that researchers and thought leaders have identified as necessary to tackle problems with many facets.

"If individuals, even very talented individuals, come up with a solution to a problem, they'll solve one or two dimensions," said Thanassis Rikakis, executive vice president and provost. "These problems have 20 or more dimensions, and we need to approach all of them in an integrative manner. If we have the right people in the room listening to each other, that's when the really good ideas emerge."

The strategy, initiated in December, is the second phase of the Beyond Boundaries initiative. It includes the formation of stakeholder committees that will drive the development of transdisciplinary teams.

The stakeholder committees consist of deans, institute directors, and faculty members with demonstrated strengths in the key components of Virginia Tech's five Destination Areas and five Strategic Growth Areas. Destination Areas, along with related, smaller-scale Strategic Growth Areas, provide new frameworks for faculty and students to identify and solve complex, 21st-century problems.

The committees will identify multifaceted solutions that can be applied to noisy, real-world problems and will guide the work of the large transdisciplinary design teams that developed each Destination Area and Strategic Growth Area during phase one.

The design teams will remain at the core of the second-phase efforts. Stakeholder committees will tap these teams to carry out many of the tasks involved in advancing the Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas by making new hires, planning more facilities, developing curricula around key topic areas, and structuring large-scale research proposals and research and engagement partnerships.

The development of the Destination Areas initiative, launched in the spring of 2016, has been guided by the methodology of iterative design. Instead of delaying action over months or years while studying a problem, iterative design involves using what's known to begin a project, testing and refining along the way, and incorporating feedback in real time to continuously improve and adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

The first phase of the Destination Areas initiative, which extended from spring 2016 through the beginning of November, engaged faculty university-wide and included town hall meetings, collection of survey data, and review of findings. This second phase, which will be driven by deep faculty engagement and stakeholder leadership, extends for 18 months, through May 2018.

According to Rikakis, developing solutions to these multidimensional challenges requires the synthesis of humanistic, scientific, and technological perspectives, which in turn means that long-held boundaries, such as those separating science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields and liberal arts, may no longer be as meaningful and may need to be transcended.

That framework — and its potential to deliver research and capable, service-oriented graduates prepared to change the world in powerful ways — differentiates Virginia Tech from its peer institutions and advances the university's efforts to redefine the role of the land-grant university in today's global economy.

Strategic Growth Areas

• Creative Technologies and Experiences
• Economical and Sustainable Materials
• Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition
• Innovation and Entrepreneurship
• Policy

VT-shaped Experience

• Transdisciplinary knowledge and technological literacy
• Informal communal learning
• Disciplinary depth
• Guided experiential learning

Destination Areas

• Adaptive Brain and Behavior
• Data Analytics and Decision Sciences
• Global Systems Science
• Integrated Security
• Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities