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* * Novel graduate program at Virginia Tech builds citizen scholars

Bill Huckle is a busy guy, one my smartest friends. He’s an Associate Professor in the Biomedical Sciences department at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. So much of the stuff he studies and teaches goes way above my head. But in a conversation recently, he spoke about a class he’s just taught that I did understand and have long had an interest in: how technologies impact societies and the planet. 

He said, “As of last August, I still devote 40% of my time to the Vet School, but now 60% is devoted to Virginia Tech’s Graduate School. The grad school manages admissions, monitors student progress, and awards Masters and Doctoral degrees. Tech has over 100 individual graduate programs now, and nearly 7000 grad students.”

Bill is from Charlottesville. He got his bachelors degree from Williams College, his Masters at Tech in biochemistry, and his PhD in pharmacology from the University of Iowa. “My research is broadly in the realm of cardiovascular biology. We are interested in the heart, but our central focus is in blood vessels – their formation and repair and diseases that involve too much or too little circulation.”

That’s the part that swoops over my head. Here’s the good part:

“I’m now teaching a course called Citizen Scholar. It’s housed in the graduate school as part of a larger imitative started a number of years ago by our Dean, Karen DePauw, called Transformative Graduate Education. It’s an opportunity for students who have the interest to engage in other types of educational experience beyond the immediate focus of their degree: how their scholarly efforts can be harnessed to the benefit of their communities. In addition to Citizen Scholar, other parts of the TGE initiative focus on effective communication and being a successful academician.

“Most graduate students, like me when I was in grad school, keep their noses to the grindstone, working to finish their course work and research projects. If a program like this had been available to me, to be honest I’m not sure I would have been drawn to it. But some students clearly do want to take a broader view.

“For the dozen or so students who take this elective course each year, it helps them feel more connected. For example, early in the course we talk about the Land Grant concept that led to the creation of Virginia Tech.”

Imagine this: President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of our Civil War, envisioned the establishment of colleges throughout the country to teach practical things, especially agriculture and engineering, to everyday citizens. Prior to that, most colleges and universities were solely educating the elites in classical fields like languages, philosophy, religion and art.

Bill said, “There was also a military focus. Schools supported by the Land Grant concept and particularly the Morrill Act, were expected also to teach military tactics. The Civil War showed Lincoln that the nation needed to be better prepared militarily for hostilities and defense. So we talked in class about how this came to be and the ways it may still be relevant. The Land Grant model is predicated on outreach, providing more practical educations so students can take their knowledge into the workplace. 

“The course gives students today the opportunity to think about not only the personal value of their education, but its larger value to society, and why society –  in the form of state or federal support of universities, for example –  is willing to invest in them.”

Bill said one student in Civil Engineering was interested in how bridge construction would impact local communities. “This person was already well tuned in to far more than the immediate project at hand. It’s a self-selected group, so students already have recognized their openness to experiences they’ve not had before. For me, doing research in the life sciences, when seeking funding for our work, it’s vital to be able to communicate its possible value to society. I ha never undertaken a community project like these students do, engaging with their neighbors. They get very creative.

“I try to stress to my students that they need to be cognizant of the groups their work might benefit or affect. We all want to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones.

“Most of all, I was struck by the passion of the students, and not just the relatively extroverted . Even those less inclined to discuss in class blossomed when describing motivations for their work. This particular set of students represented a remarkable range of disciplines, and their enthusiasm adds life to the academic enterprise. I think every student could truly benefit from this experience.

“Hopefully what students come out of this with is a broader awareness or “raised consciousness” about the value and the costs of what they want to do with the rest of their lives.”


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