Outlook 2013: Union College offers interdisciplinary mix of studies

Interdisciplinary studies, especially in science and technology fields, may give Union College gradu

Interdisciplinary studies, especially in science and technology fields, may give Union College graduates a leg up when interviewing for jobs, say college officials.

The college has offered programs that combine a variety of subjects for at least a decade. Bioengineering is a growing program with about 20 graduates per year, according to Steven Rice, professor of biology and co-director of the program. The majority of graduates have an interest in the medical field and leave school knowing about biomedical devices, applications and prosthetics.

“Students have a much broader base of knowledge than most engineers have,” he said.

Graduates are therefore more marketable to prospective companies, according to Rice, as employers can hire one person who possesses all the skills they need — instead of two or three people.

Rice said Union’s engineering programs open up opportunities for interdisciplinary studies, which he believes is a selling point.

“I do get the sense there’s a lot of incoming students that are attracted here because of these programs, particularly the popular ones like neuroscience and bioengineering,” he said.

About 80 to 90 students graduate annually from one of the interdisciplinary programs. Other interdisciplinary majors include biochemistry, environmental science and environmental policy. Minors are environmental engineering and nanotechnology.

Any student can create an interdisciplinary program.

Students have created interdisciplinary programs with art, classics, political science, economics and psychology, according to Valerie Barr, professor of computer science and director of interdisciplinary programs.

“One of the real strengths of what we’re doing at Union is making sure that students are comfortable talking across disciplinary boundaries,” she said.

Instead of doing two separate majors, students complete coursework in both subjects and then complete a senior project that combines both disciplines. “They’re really placing themselves at the intersection as opposed to pursuing two separate fields,” she said.

In 2002, Union College created the Center for Converging Technologies. However, the initiative has grown beyond its original Converging Technologies name, which has been dropped.

It was a good idea at the time, Barr said, but creating a separate department made it seem like converging technologies was a special entity in and of itself, rather than an extension of interdisciplinary activities at the college.

“People are seeing these relationships much more integrated into the fabric of what they’re doing. It becomes much more natural,” he said.

Rice said Union was ahead of the curve as its nanotechnology program was developed nine years ago — well before GlobalFoundries came onto the scene.

Professor Michael E. Hagerman, chairman of the chemistry department and co-director of the nanotechnology program, said in an email that faculty have discovered that nanontechnology encompasses biology, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

The goal of the nanotechnology program, according to Hagerman, is to familiarize students with nanomaterials fabrication, promote career opportunities in nanotechnology and related fields and help faculty research programs by building bridges between those courses and research laboratories.

“Advances in nanotechnology offer intriguing applications, including molecule-sized devices that can locate and destroy cancer cells, clothing made of fabric containing biocontamination sensors and zero-emission buildings made of materials that convert solar energy into electricity,” he said. “In addition, scientists, artists, economists, historians and philosophers are among the many who are delving into the world of the very small.”

The college also is in the last year of a multiyear, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create a campus computing initiative. To date, college officials have funded 24 faculty projects in 15 departments or programs using the grant funding, according to Barr.

“The focus of that is to encourage faculty outside of computer science to incorporate computer science into their courses,” she said.

Union College students also have access to a supercomputer, which was donated by IBM in 2011 and has 1,000 processors so it can complete tasks much more quickly.

Chemistry and mechanical engineering students have used the computer the most, according to Barr. In addition, the college is trying to get off the ground a project for the political science and economics faculty to analyze a huge database of Chinese trade data.

Barr wouldn’t rule out some of the interdisciplinary minors becoming majors eventually. For example, Barr sees climate change as another natural interdisciplinary field of study. However, she believes there won’t be any additional programs soon.

“Faculty size hasn’t increased. You’re running more programs, but largely out of the same resources,” she said.

The curriculum is constantly evolving based on student interest and the changing world, according to Barr.

“Prospective students vote a little bit with their feet,” she said. “If your curriculum is too out of date, you don’t stand up well in the market place.”

To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.

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