BATON ROUGE -- A group of LSU faculty members, led by Paul Russo of the Department of Chemistry, is developing a new multidisciplinary, craft-based approach to graduate education that could serve as a model for graduate programs around the country.
LSU's apprentice-craftsman approach focuses on training doctoral students for the modern workplace through hands-on research, teaching and community service. The object of the training is to help students obtain prestigious positions at top universities and national research laboratories.
"The goal is not merely to get our students jobs, but careers," Russo said.
LSU is one of 57 colleges and universities around the country taking part in the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education Research Training program, known as IGERT. The IGERT program, designed to reinvent the way graduate students are trained, allows participating institutions to develop their own methods for graduate education. NSF offers guidelines for the program, including that it should involve new teaching methods, intensive research and problem-solving aspects for students. But many of the details are left up to the universities taking part in the program.
The 57 different IGERT programs around the nation span all areas of research, from the biological sciences to the social sciences. But all use a multidisciplinary approach, bringing researchers and students from a variety of fields together to study different aspects of one main topic or theme. The programs are also all integrative, meaning they use an array of different teaching methods such as lectures, laboratory sessions, research projects and seminar speakers.
LSU's program, "Teaching Craft for Macro-Molecular Creativity," involves faculty members and students from various departments, including chemistry, biological sciences, physics, chemical and mechanical engineering, human ecology, education and veterinary medicine. But all of the participants in the program are studying macromolecules, or large molecules. Russo said large molecules range from DNA, which is used to store genetic information, to polyethylene, which is used to make trash bags.
"The fact that the molecules are large confers commonality and requires students to master similar concepts," Russo said. "In this program, it is common for engineers to study next to biologists." LSU's craft-based approach to the IGERT program is unique throughout the country. Russo said first-year students in the program are called apprentices and are required to work actively with professors to select a research project and co-author a mini-thesis with a professor on that topic. Once students complete the apprenticeship requirements, they graduate to the artisan level, where they are allowed to work more independently. Artisans can even pursue independent research projects in which they write their own grant proposals and scientific papers or spend time working in a foreign laboratory or in industry. When they complete that phase, artisans must undergo a data defense, which ensures that they have a good grasp of the research and experiments they have performed.
Students who do well on the data defense are named craftspersons and are allowed to spend several months working as researchers at other universities or research labs at IGERT's expense. These stints are expected to help students obtain a global perspective, as well as top jobs, possibly with the institution they worked for as a craftsperson.
While in the LSU program, students are required to take a specific core of courses, including an ethics course and a community-service project. They must also have a mentor from outside of LSU, either from industry or from another university, to evaluate their progress. The entire program takes about four years. There are eight LSU students in the program so far, most of whom are working on research projects in teams of two or three. Teamwork is another aspect of education that the IGERT program encourages because it mirrors the way things are generally done in industry.
The NSF instituted the IGERT program in 1997 and funded LSU's franchise in 2000. Each university selected to set up an IGERT program receives funding for five years.
Russo said that some of the nation's best universities have IGERT programs, so he believes LSU is in good company. He also said the IGERT program offers students a number of excellent opportunities and has made recruiting top-notch students easier. "With this program I can offer students anything that any other school has to offer, both financially and academically," Russo said. "They can do as well here as any place."
He said the education and experience the students get from the program will be invaluable. "I think these students will be highly employable," Russo said.
Russo said the NSF regards the IGERT program as an experiment. It is designed to find out whether this kind of education is more effective than a more traditional one, he said. LSU faculty members involved in the IGERT program are required to compile a report to the NSF on the program, evaluating its results. IGERT is also designed to encourage American students to enter into the field of science; therefore, the program is open only to domestic students or U.S. nationals.
Russo said that while most NSF programs focus on research and discovery, IGERT also places a heavy emphasis on teaching.
"The NSF hopes IGERT will change the research culture of universities," Russo said. "The NSF wants to show universities that research and teaching go hand in hand. Research is teaching."
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