$5 Million Grant Expanding VIP Big-Team, Big-Scale, Long-Term Research Program

A long-time effort to bring undergraduate students into large, long-term research projects to work with older students and faculty has just received a financial boost. A consortium of universities participating in the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program has earned a three-year, $5 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The money will fund expansion of this curricular approach, which mixes engineering instruction with research through multidisciplinary teams of faculty and graduate and undergraduate students.

The VIP Program has been going on for at least a decade, pioneered by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan and now involves 15 schools. The program follows a unique model for student involvement in research. Whereas it's common for students to work on semester- or year-long lab assignments as individuals, the VIP approach uses large teams — between 10 and 30 people — and runs across multiple years so that a student can be involved for at least two years and possibly longer. The kinds of research projects they're immersed in tend to be long-term and large-scale and continue for multiple years, even decades.

Among the other characteristics of successful VIP programs, they:

  • Combine education and research, which means that student involvement has the potential to expand the research portfolios of the faculty mentor as well as the student;
  • Are curricular, not co-curricular, allowing the student to gain both technical and professional skills while earning grades;
  • Often involve multi-disciplinary teams; and
  • Take dedicated classroom and meeting spaces.

The experience students have through the program can influence the direction of their studies and often helps them decide to continue as graduate students in STEM fields. "For many students, this is the first chance they've had to do something real while they're undergraduates," said Edward Coyle, the founder and director of Georgia Tech's VIP program.

"We are working to broaden the experiential learning opportunities for our students in ways that deepen their technical knowledge and give them a holistic, systems thinking perspective," added Brian Gilchrist, co-director of the Multidisciplinary Design Program and a professor at U Michigan. "In the real world, engineers work with many other disciplines and perspectives and we believe this program will help us broaden our efforts to integrate that reality into our degree programs."

Gilchrist's own VIP lab is designing a mission to test the feasibility of smartphone-sized spacecraft. This three-year project is developing devices that won't drive with "traditional chemical propellants," but rather through the use of "electrodynamic tethers," that use the Earth's magnetic field and energy from the Sun. The team expects to complete a prototype by the end of 2016.

This team is just one of eight at U Michigan. Georgia Tech has 23 teams, incorporating 280 students. Purdue University, another member of the consortium, has 17 teams with 86 students. In both of those institutions students can participate for six semesters.

The expectation is that the new funding will help institutions expand the number of teams and draw in new universities to the program.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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