Unlike the similarly transdisciplinary studio-based course created for the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program, you don’t have to be part of the honors program or in a certain major to participate.
SuperStudio welcomes anyone on campus. This spring, the fifth time SuperStudio was taught at Virginia Tech, students hailed from majors as diverse as biochemistry, engineering, business, English, and philosophy. About half of the students came from smart and sustainable cities and environmental policy and planning majors, for which Hall’s SuperStudio section acts as a capstone course.
The ability to pull in such a breadth of students may be a particular knack of the Honors College. According to Dean Paul Knox, “The Honors College is in a unique position to circumvent disciplinary silos by convening multidisciplinary groups of students and bringing them together with faculty from a wide range of disciplines.”
No matter their backgrounds or which section of the course they came from — employment, education, public policy, or data — SuperStudio students layered their knowledge — disciplinary expertise, topic-section learning, Green New Deal information — like a trifle. “You’ll have these multiple levels of expertise that you’ll then combine with other people who have different flavors of expertise and come up with this really rich project,” said Velez.
While all 10 student projects responded to the same theme of the Green New Deal, they had 10 completely different takes on it.
One group developed a plan to improve active transportation in Nashville. Others promoted biophilic design, environmentally conscious public art, or climate change education. Students tackled community wealth building, the urban heat island effect, transit accessibility, and sustainable jobs.
Kayleigh Steigman, now a senior in environmental policy and planning, worked on a project to reskill coal industry workers and thus hasten the shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy. She noted that even though she had registered for the employment section of SuperStudio, “it’s helpful to see how other sides would think about the issues.”
By the end, most students struggled to remember which section of the course they’d originally signed up for, but they all loved how collaborative SuperStudio had become. “It’s just a different way to learn,” said Olivia Wolz, a 2022 graduate in political science who took the course as a senior and participated in a group project on fast fashion. It’s more interactive than most classes. You’re not expected to sit and listen to a lecture, you’re expected to do things.”
As Knox described it, “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 towards better understanding and potential interventions.”
Changing the world collaboratively
Teaching a class as collaborative as SuperStudio takes extra time for faculty members who aren’t focused solely on teaching. “Our Faculty Activity Reports look the same as other folks’,” said Velez. She credits a supportive Honors College administration with allowing them the flexibility to play with new ideas and develop relationships over time.
Despite the challenges, SuperStudio’s five faculty members are convinced that their course could be replicated — and should be. “We’re just getting students to think about, How do you interact with others in intellectual spaces in a meaningful way in order to make social change happen?” said Lewis.
In other ways, Honors SuperStudio is teaching students how to change the world, one collaboration at a time.
To learn more about Honors SuperStudio, read “Designing Transdisciplinarity: Exploring Institutional Drivers and Barriers to Collaborative Transdisciplinary Teaching,” a paper by Velez, Hall, and Lewis in the Journal of Public Affairs Studies, Nov. 12, 2021.