By combining the educational benefits of problem-based learning, design thinking, communities of practice, and higher education studio courses, the Virginia Tech Honors College created a brand-new initiative: SuperStudio.

SuperStudio builds upon these practices to engage students in the kinds of transdisciplinary and massively-collaborative work they will need as professionals and citizens to address critical 21st century issues. The SuperStudio brings together — in one space — multiple advanced courses, each focusing on a different critical aspect of a complex global challenge and collaboratively working toward possible solutions.    

Multi-disciplinary groups of students are essential to SuperStudio, but not the most innovative part of its curriculum. What makes SuperStudio unlike other studio courses is its implementation of a multi-disciplinary teaching team. The key to SuperStudio is that students and faculty collaborate on developing transdisciplinary projects together.

The SuperStudio is a unique collaborative setting that facilitates shifting between analytic, synthetic, and evaluative modes of thinking, formal and informal communication, and self-directed learning,” said Paul Knox, founding dean of the Virginia Tech Honors College.  “Project- and problem-based work in studio settings allows students to learn from failure, handle ambiguity, develop the capacity to think across scales, and learn the practice of reflective inquiry.”

Students and faculty in the Honors College Studios
Collegiate Assistant Professor Dr. Nikki Lewis leads a discussion during the integrative module of SuperStudio that allows students from the topic sections to communicate and engage in critical thinking.

The Beginning of SuperStudio

Coordinating multi-disciplinary teams of both students and faculty on complex topics, like the Green New Deal, requires a lot of planning and continuous coordination. So, how did this large SuperStudio initiative begin? According to Dr. Nikki Lewis, a collegiate assistant professor for the Honors College, it was a “combination of several moving parts – running at the same time.”

About four years ago, working group conversations about the goals of the Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP), coupled with curriculum planning for new Honors College course offerings, and many conversations within the Honors College about how to have more integrated and transdisciplinary experiences for Honors students, led to an initial pilot of the SuperStudio concept through the Topics in Discovery and Innovation Studios course (UH-4504).

Simultaneously, Dr. Anne-Lise Velez, a collegiate associate professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and Honors College, was strategizing ways to encourage more students – even if they are not directly working with policy – to think about policy and policy-related processes in their education.

“Everyone is affected by policy,” explained Dr. Velez. “A lot of things people are doing in their job affects policy, whether it’s dealing with data or buildings things… We want to get students to start seeing the connection.” 

During these conversations between Drs. Velez, Lewis, and various faculty members in both the Honors College and across Virginia Tech, a common theme of what was missing in their education became clear: a space to realize what their interests were in-between disciplines.

Dr. Velez said the driving question, at the beginning of developing SuperStudio was, “How do we make a space for students in very different disciplines to come together and identify problem areas – and then, work together to work on solutions for those problem areas?

Dr. Zack Underwood, Director of University Studies at Virginia Tech, had also joined the discussion. He was well familiar with helping students understand their learning process, tracking students’ success, and defining metrics for students who are not as successful. Dr. Underwood expressed an interest in working with Honors students and proposed his own course. Using what was learned from the SuperStudio pilot and from discussions with Dr. Underwood, the team identified where he could contribute to student conversations about education as something more than just their pursuit of a degree.

SuperStudio students working with faculty
Undergraduate Programs Director and Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning Dr. Ralph Hall guiding students in SuperStudio.

Dean Knox was also reaching out to various faculty members and having conversations about transdisciplinary education.

“The Honors College is in a unique position to circumvent disciplinary silos by convening multi-disciplinary groups of students and bringing them together with faculty from a wide range of disciplines,” said Dean Knox. “Studio pedagogy allows us to incorporate active learning in collaborative project- and problem-based contexts, explore critical, real-world problems, collaborate across disciplines to research the problems from a variety of viewpoints, and work through multiple iterations of design thinking toward better understanding and potential interventions.”

At first, the general idea of creating this space was to combine different topics that clearly come together in an overarching context with policy to identify problems and work toward possible solutions. The idea of using the Green New Deal as the first SuperStudio topic developed afterward.

It was the serendipitous nature of these moving parts happening at the same time that translated to the people that are now involved [in SuperStudio],” said Dr. Lewis.

The shared policy context allows faculty to pivot the focus of the courses based on world events. Prior to the first semester of SuperStudio, the Green New Deal was frequently discussed across media outlets and social media, which made it a useful topic with currency, relevance, and unanswered questions that could be explored in the classroom.

“The goals expressed within the resolution are topics for which no single discipline and no single solution will suffice. Topics like climate-related impacts, equity, and access are too complex to explore from a single perspective,” explained Dr. Lewis. “The Green New Deal proposals essentially call for public policy to address climate change as well as invest in clean-energy jobs and infrastructures.”

The SuperStudio initiative harnesses the work of three to five advanced course in environmental policy, healthcare data analysis, the future of higher education, and the future of employment to examine the challenges and potentials of the Green New Deal, an emerging framework for understanding and addressing interconnected crises in climate change and economic inequality. The amount of topics offered in SuperSutdio depends on the semester.

The topic sections represent interrelated themes within the Green New Deal, which must be understood as parts of complex historical, social, and cultural contexts.

A group of SuperStudio students present their research to multiple SuperStudio groups to participate in a transdisciplinary examination of the Green New Deal.
A group of SuperStudio students present their research to multiple SuperStudio groups to participate in a transdisciplinary examination of the Green New Deal.

How does SuperStudio work?

How does SuperStudio combine up to five different advanced courses – instructed by multiple faculty members of various disciplines – into a transdisciplinary examination of the Green New Deal? Another innovative component of SuperStudio is its course structure.

Students involved in SuperStudio enroll in a 3-credit specialized topic module of their choosing. Students also enroll in a 1-credit integrative module that allows students from the topic sections to communicate and engage in critical thinking.

Over the semester, SuperStudio students develop interest-based team projects of their choosing. Due to these highly collaborative projects, students will ultimately gain practical experience in problem solving, decision-making, and collaboration. All of these skills are gaining importance in an increasingly transdisciplinary professional world.

Teamwork and collaboration define the Hokie Nation, and the Honors College SuperStudio experience was the pinnacle of my transdisciplinary, team-based learning at Virginia Tech,” said former SuperStudio student Nathan Shelburne. “In SuperStudio, I became part of a team of students from different colleges and diverse majors, all making distinctive contributions in our effort to address a common issue. This amazing outpouring of contrasting perspectives and ideas was my favorite part of SuperStudio.”

Another element of what makes SuperStudio unique is the guidance for students to learn by producing their own original academic work.

“SuperStudio also allows you to learn by creating scholarly content, rather than just consuming it,” explained Shelburne. “[The results of our final projects] were a drastic and welcome departure from the traditional consumption of other published content.”

While SuperStudio is currently focused on the examination of the Green New Deal, faculty members of SuperStudio expect for the structure and topics of SuperStudio to continually evolve. However, SuperStudio will always serve as a sanctuary for both students and faculty members across disciplines to create new knowledge and develop the transdisciplinary capabilities needed in a world that is on the cusp of economic and civic revolution.