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Student Experience

Student Experience

The Calhoun Discovery Program’s Collaborative Discovery Diploma and the Honors Laureate Collaborative Discovery focus area prepare students to be lifelong learners in collaborative sociotechnical innovation for sustainable development.

a faculty member sits with students at a table

Our Student Experience

The goal of the Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP)  is to help prepare integrative, lifelong learners who 

  • Can move easily across knowledge domains and pick up diverse new skills in a just-in-time approach 
  • Can connect their specialized knowledge to complex collaborative contexts for problem setting and problem solving 
  • Use complex relational and collaborative contexts for self-discovery and personal fulfillment 
  • Connect personal fulfillment to advancing an equitable and sustainable society

The CDP helps learners develop these competencies through a combination of transdisciplinary studios, interdisciplinary general education and disciplinary preparation.  Learning happens in a collaborative cross sector context spanning many academic disciplines, industry and community.  Students work with experts across these sectors to co-design their learning experience and adaptive pathways. 

The CDP learning experience focuses on collaborative sociotechnical innovation for sustainable development.  This theme engages the specific interests and abilities of all academic and industry participants regardless of disciplinary background or industry specialization. It also facilitates the synchronous development of individual and collective achievement and leverages the strengths and fulfills the mission of Virginia Tech as a land-grant institution.

In the Transdisciplinary Studios students apply CDP’s systems approach to the collaborative socio-technical innovation for sustainable development. Faculty and students from all participating disciplines, as well as experts from our industry and non-profit partners, work together in the studios. Students take one semester-long collaborative studio in their first two years and one studio per semester in the third and fourth years of study. Projects are offered at the concept, prototype, and applied level with multiple possible pathways between the different projects at each level. The Transdisciplinary Studios count toward disciplinary experiential learning requirements, including the senior capstone project. Capstone studios may be partly realized in partner facilities and locations. Summer and wintermester internships with partners may also be connected to the studios.

Transdisciplinary Studios

Faculty and students from all participating disciplines, as well as experts from industry and non-profit partners, come together for hands-on explorations of real-world problems. The problem spaces that they tackle span strategic areas of discovery for our students, faculty, and partners. Students are presented with real world problems and data as well as expert multidisciplinary multi-sector supervision for their projects. All student projects embrace a systems approach and student teams working on the projects have participation that spans CDP’s four sets: feasibility, viability, desirability, sustainability. The Transdisciplinary Studios, prototyping lab, and virtual distributed collaboration are available to students, faculty, and partners 24/7 for collaborative exploration of these problems spaces. 

The focal areas of each studio are as follows:

First-year studio (Fall):

Concept development: Collaborative problem-setting with systems thinking approach; Collaboratively understand complex problem spaces; Global contexts for sociotechnical innovation spanning CDP’s four sets: feasibility, viability, desirability, sustainability; Reflective making; Ethical dimensions of collaborative sociotechnical innovation for sustainable development.

Second-year studio (Spring):

Concept prototyping: Collaborative problem-solving with systems thinking approach; Introduction to quantitative and qualitative research methods; Optimization and integration; Component prototyping; Ethical dimensions of collaborative sociotechnology innovation for societal impact.

Third-year studios:

(Fall): Applied systems thinking; Identification and analysis of stakeholders; Skills discovery and transdisciplinary team building; Rapid Prototyping.

(Spring): Applied collaborative sociotechnical innovation; Customer discovery; Evidence-based decision-making; Iterative design; Troubleshooting.

Fourth-year (Capstone) studios:

(Fall): Applied systems building; Project leadership and management, including resource allocation and scheduling; Team management; Value propositions; Project pitching.

(Spring): Applied systems evaluation: Understanding precedence, modeling, experimentation and cognitive reasoning; User experience; User testing; Systems assessment addressing feasibility, viability, desirability, sustainability, optimization, and integration; Systems reflection and documentation.


Customizable interdisciplinary general education. The Discovery Program offers over 40 one-credit Honors course modules that cover key concepts in the participating disciplines related to collaborative sociotechnical innovation for sustainable development. Students choose the modules that best fit their interdisciplinary collaboration interests. All modules employ a flipped classroom format, combining rich faculty-student interactions both in person and online, which facilitates flexible scheduling. All modules count toward Pathways general education requirements.

Pathways General Education Requirements

  • Algorithmic Thinking
  • Computing Systems
  • Acquiring & Analyzing Data
  • Descriptive Analytics
  • Prescriptive & Predictive Analytics
  • Matrix Computation and Calculation
  • Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
  • Decisions & Simulations
  • Hardware / Software Interface
  • Internet of Things
  • Signal Processing
  • Power & Energy
  • Optimization & Robustness
  • Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes
  • Advanced Manufacturing
  • Security and Privacy
  • Operations Management
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Market Analysis
  • Iteration and Continuous Improvement
  • Supply Chain Management
  • Requirements, Verification and Testing
  • Professional Writing
  • Visual Communication – Image Creation
  • Visual Communication – Design Principles
  • Professional Presentations
  • Communicating Data
  • Multimedia & Broadcast Communication
  • Digital Media in Society
  • Online Collaboration Tools
  • Interaction 
  • Aesthetics
  • Form
  • Multimodal Record of Personal Knowledge
  • Human Environment Interaction
  • Human Condition and Structural Inequity
  • World Economy
  • Technology Systems + Economic Development
  • Social Construction Theory
  • Community & Identity
  • Personal Knowledge in Action
  • Collective Intelligence
  • Adaptive Cyber Human Learning
  • Multimodal Record of Personal Knowledge
  • Online Collaboration Tools

For a visual representation of all CDP courses with their corresponding pathway, 
select Fall Courses or Spring Courses below. 

Each student is assigned an Honors faculty advisor who helps the student connect their disciplinary education within their degree area to transdisciplinary education in collaborative sociotechnical innovation for sustainable development.

Advisors help students by:

  • Meeting with the students regularly and reviewing progress in the disciplinary degree and transdisciplinary Honors diploma (Honors Collaborative Discovery Diploma)
  • Offering guidance to students on their applied projects and research ideas
  • Working with students to prepare proposals for Discovery Program research grants that support each student’s research interests.

The Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP) provides inclusive, collective learning that can help develop life skills (communication, collaboration, versatility, complex thinking, creativity) that are critical for success in the 21st century economy. To realize an inclusive relational context the CDP aims to attract learners with many different life experiences as well as instructors from academia and industry with different areas of specialization. Thanks to significant industry and philanthropic support, all Collaborative Discovery Diploma students receive tuition scholarships and additional grants for experiential learning.

Admission to the CDP is based on a holistic review of GPA, learning skills exams, essays, portfolios of work, as well as interviews that explore the interest of the students in adaptive and collaborative learning. In the first two years, this approach has produced gender-balanced cohorts with 25% of the students being from underserved and/or underrepresented backgrounds.

The CDP admits students across 10 different disciplines: Business Information Technology, Business Management, Computational Modeling and Data Analytics, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Industrial Design, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Communication, Environmental Policy and Planning, Smart and Sustainable Cities,Creative Technologies, and Professional & Technical Communication.

The Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP) spaces include the Discovery Studio and Workshop in Hillcrest Hall, and the Honors College Studios in Squires Student Center. These studios give the CDP students a dedicated space that allows them the opportunity to turn their ideas into prototypes.

Discovery Studio (Hillcrest Hall)

The Discovery Studio is the CDP’s classroom and collaboration area. This is where students can study individually or in groups, attend lectures, take classes, etc. It is designed to be reconfigurable to suit their individual or group needs. It is also where we host special events, dinners, guest speakers, showcases, etc.

Discovery Workshop (Hillcrest Hall)

Adjoining the Discovery Studio is the Discovery Workshop. This space is dedicated to the idea of making. As part of the CDP, we want to help students broaden their skill set through the making process. There is freedom to work on personal projects, projects within their majors, and especially CDP-specific projects. In this space students can use 3D printers, a laser cutter/engraver, a soldering station, and a variety of power tools and hand tools. 

Honors College Studios/Discovery 2 (Squires Student Center)

The Honors College Studios is a former ballroom, so it is a large space where all Honors College students have a similar freedom of movement and configuration that is offered in the Discovery Studio. The furniture here is reconfigurable to accommodate student needs, except for the baby grand piano on the balcony! A part of this space is also dedicated to making, as it features many of the same tools offered in Hillcrest Hall. 

Maker Projects

In keeping with the idea of transdisciplinary skills, we encourage students to get out of their comfort zone and work on a maker project during the first year. The goal of the projects are to learn interaction, how to use different tools, improve project management, and research methods. The maker project is not tied to any course or module. The idea is to have students learn skills that they want to learn, and have fun doing it. Students can work individually or in a group, with guidance from their CDP Faculty Mentor.

Check out sample four-year plans to see how the program could work with your field of study.

Note: these are sample plans and students will need to work with their college advisors and CDP faculty mentors to determine which modules they should take.

The Honors Laureate Diploma in Collaborative Discovery (HLDCD) Focus Area  is open to any Honors eligible student in any major at Virginia Tech. There is a limit of 120 students in this path. To work towards the HCDCD, students will follow an established  checksheet for this focus area and fulfill requirements for each of the four elements of the Honors Laureate Diploma.

To begin exploring the HLDCD focus area, Honors eligible students should enroll in  Studio+. This course has been designed to enhance Virginia Tech’s leadership in transdisciplinary and trans-sector education in collaborative technology innovation for sociotechnical impact.

As we began to structure a collaborative socio-technical innovation theme for the Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP), it was important to consider the significant body of research over the past 15 years in engineering systems/design thinking approaches to collaborative technology innovation. The goal of the research is to systematize an integrative approach to collaborative innovation that addresses the technical components (feasibility) along with the business (viability) and design (desirability) components (De Weck et al., 2011; IDEO, n.d.).  A further goal is to structure learning methodologies that train experts who can work in teams to implement these systems approaches (Miller, 2010). The CDP aims to build on this work while adding the component of sustainability (socioeconomic and environmental), thus emphasizing the societal impact of the program.

We refer to the four components of the CDP systems approach to collaborative socio-technical innovation as sets. From an industry perspective, the four sets can represent the following simplified elements of a solution concept for a problem space: (1) desirability aligns to a definable real need from a use case, (2) feasibility aligns to a technical approach that exists and has some maturity, (3) viability aligns to how the technical approach can be manufactured reliably and repeatedly, is testable, and can be accomplished for a cost that is reasonable to the desirability constraints, and (4) sustainability aligns to a solution concept that embraces societal benefits such as eco-friendly, policy compliant, regulation compliant, life cycle cost supportable and promotes inclusive economic prosperity. As shown in figure 1 (below), some elements of these four sets overlap. Systems approaches to sustainable socio-technical solutions need to address the interrelations and interdependencies among all the key elements of the four sets through extensive collaboration of people with different experiences and knowledge. Figure 1, shows how the expertise of the ten participating programs of the CDP provide overlapping coverage of all four sets. 

Figure A1

Figure 1 Integrating the four sets for sociotechnical innovation with the participation of students from 10 different programs.

A significant part of the learning in the CDP throughout each year of study is realized through collaborative, transdisciplinary, hands-on projects that engage academia, industry and community. Students are thus guaranteed real-world problems and real-world data as well as expert multidisciplinary, multi-sector supervision for their projects. All student projects embrace a systems approach and are realized by student teams with expertise that spans the four sets. 

In parallel with their collaborative projects, all students follow one of the ten disciplinary curricula that participate in the CDP. Each disciplinary curriculum has a fairly fixed plan through first- and second-year courses, but by the third year students are expected to branch out into different pathways, which further enhances the students’ self-discovery process. For example, students in electrical and computer engineering can choose one of eight possible concentrations after their second year. Additionally, all students in the CDP are assigned an honors faculty advisor with experience in transdisciplinary work and expertise in the student’s chosen discipline. The CDP advisor works with the student on integrating the domain-specific skills arising from their discipline with the domain-general and life skills that are emphasized in the collaborative projects.

As the students are realizing collaborative projects and advancing in their discipline, they discover needs and interests in other areas of knowledge that may complement their disciplinary skills and help them solve complex problems through collaborating more effectively with students from other disciplines.  To serve this just-in-time need of the students, the CDP offers 40 one-credit general education modules on each key element of the four sets. Each module is also designed to map to the Virginia Tech Pathways general education model: quantitative & computational thinking, discourse, social science, humanities, design/arts, and identity & equity. For example, the module on hardware-software interface is mapped to feasibility and to quantitative thinking. All modules are offered asynchronously and utilize interactive content applications and as needed meetings with peers and instructors. 

Figure 2

Figure 2 depicts how disciplinary preparation, general education, and collaborative experiential learning come together in the CDP as one systems-level experience that promotes collective intelligence for collaborative socio-technical innovation. 

Everything that CDP students learn in their discipline is continuously recontextualized through connection to relevant concepts from other disciplines and to complex real-world projects. Thus, the students learn to develop a disciplinary specialization that is connected to other areas of knowledge and to systems approaches for improvement of the human condition.  Furthermore, the students identify abstract concepts arising from their disciplinary specialization that can be applied to other specializations. The students can then develop knowledge identities that merge two or more disciplines. This merging does not take the form of a list of multiple majors or minors. Instead, it is a set of embodied and socially embedded skills that the student can intuitively combine and apply to the complexity of their lived experience and to advancing comprehensive approaches to societal challenges. 

As students’ knowledge evolves, the initial sets of knowledge in the CDP model gradually shift and merge. For example, a great technological insight can come from a CDP student anchored in industrial design and a new policy perspective from a CDP  student anchored in engineering. Through these collaborations, the students learn to look to the uniqueness of their colleagues — rather than to disciplinary tags — for structuring their collaborations. The CDP graduates are lifelong transdisciplinary learners who are able to recruit an evolving array of disciplinary tool sets across multiple disciplines as well as diverse collaborators to facilitate a meaningful exploration of life and society.

In the traditional disciplinary education model, the student takes their fixed-knowledge identity from their discipline: “I am an engineer” or “I am an artist,” for example.  In the CDP Discovery model, the student takes their evolving knowledge identity from their explorations: “I am exploring inequality in education by combining my knowledge of engineering and arts through collaboration with social scientists, members of underserved communities, and business owners who are interested in serving these communities.”  Or “I am currently exploring semi-automated air delivery for goods as a means of decreasing congestion and pollution in cities by combining my knowledge in business, design, and big data and collaborating with engineers and policymakers.”   In other words, the CDP model does not aim to train engineers, or artists or business executives.   The CDP model aims to train people who do engineering, or art or business.

  1. Miller, R. From the Ground Up: Rethinking Engineering Education for the 21st Century. In  Symposium on Liberal Education, Union College, New York, 2010: Union College
  2. Olivier L. de Weck A, Daniel Roos A, Christopher L. Magee A, Charles M. Vest A. Engineering Systems : Meeting Human Needs in a Complex Technological World. MIT Press; 2011.
  3. Engines, GE Aircraft et al. “1 FIPER : An Intelligent System for the Optimal Design of Highly Engineered Products.” (2005)
  4. Page, S. E. (2007). The difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Herbert A. Simon A. The Sciences of the Artificial. MIT Press; 1996.
  6. Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of transdisciplinarity (SUNY series in Western esoteric traditions). Albany: State University of New York Press.