Georgia College joins international alliance of research teams

Georgia College joins international alliance of research teams

G eorgia College has joined a prestigious international consortium of VIPs.

By its acronym, you might think its members are ‘very important people.’

And, well, they are.

They’re faculty and students who formed research teams across all disciplines. Now, they’ve been united in an organization and website called Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program––a model for experiential learning.

Joining the consortium puts Georgia College’s name on the world stage. It adds new emphasis on undergraduate and graduate research and helps students improve their communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

This is about making a bridge and enabling collaborations among departments and disciplines. This makes sense at a liberal arts university.
– Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge
Research will be far encompassing to include design, entrepreneurship and community service.

“This is about making a bridge and enabling collaborations among departments and disciplines. This makes sense at a liberal arts university,” said Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, associate professor of physics and director of the new VIP program.

So far, six departments have registered research teams to be part of VIP: biology; English; music; chemistry, physics and astronomy; psychological science; and economics and finance.

The original VIP program started in 2001 at Perdue University, then centralized at Georgia Institute of Technology (GA Tech) in 2009. More than 45 universities worldwide are part of the consortium, which won the 2019 ABET Innovation Award for spreading this approach to ‘engineering’ education––recognized as transformational.

Most universities involved with VIP do engineering research. Georgia College is among the first to join as a liberal arts institution––and therein lies a chance to “shine,” Mahabaduge said.

“We as a designated liberal arts institution bring our own flavor,” he said. “Now, let’s bring it together and give it more purpose and intention. Be something new, but not necessarily entirely new. Let’s take advantage of what’s already happening, give it more structure and do things in a more uniform way.”

Like GC Journeys––which brought successful concepts already being done together in a new form––VIP takes ongoing projects and brings it together into one program. This makes it easier for students from all majors to find and participate in ongoing research. For example, a communication student who’s interested in renewable energy can work with the GC Solar VIP team to create a marketing plan for their products.

Much of the research in Georgia College’s VIP program is ongoing. For example, Dr. Tsu-Ming Chiang’s social emotional learning project in local elementary schools has been around more than 20 years. Another is Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak’s Trax on the Trail, a website for studying presidential campaign music since 2015. Her team is gearing up for the 2024 election season and will unveil a new website in November.

Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.
Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.
“One of the most difficult parts of conducting a research project with students is that they come and go each semester,” Gorzelany-Mostak said.

“The VIP structure makes it possible for students to work on a project over a sustained period of time. Tracking a campaign soundscape across various web-based platforms,” she said, “is detailed and time-consuming work. I welcome the opportunity to train students who can stay on the project for an entire electoral cycle and develop their own research projects on this topic.”

As these research projects show––liberal arts topics bring diversity to research.

Students take samples from a local river to study water quality.
Students take samples from a local river to study water quality.

English is another example. Dr. Jennifer Flaherty is partnering with a professor at Weber State University with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their research delves into Shakespearean adaptations in education. Students will organize findings onto a website for teachers to access.

“The VIP program is a great opportunity for students of all levels to collaborate on research projects with faculty and other students in different areas of study,” Flaherty said. “Because English is a flexible major that allows students to be successful in a number of different professions and areas of study, I hope more English students and faculty will be involved in the VIP program going forward.”

A student studies a new species of amphipod.
A student studies a new species of amphipod.
VIP has received strong support from administrators, something that impresses Mahabaduge’s colleagues at other universities. Dr. Costas Spirou, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Dr. Jordan Cofer, associate provost of Transformative Learning Experiences, Dr. Eric Tenbus, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Mahabaduge’s own interim chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy, Dr. Donovan Domingue, have all pledged support.

Georgia College’s VIP program also received a $25,000 grant from Georgia Research Alliance. It helped get the website up and running and provides seed funds for VIP teams.

This fall, students will be able to earn academic credit by joining VIP and participating in a long-term, project-based learning course. Teams may include 15 to 20 students. Faculty may not be able to give one-on-one guidance to all members of a research group, Mahabaduge said. But upperclassmen will give personal attention and training to younger students who, in turn, will train and mentor others. Being able to interpret and teach complex material is a valuable skill.

VIP is a chance for different disciplines to research together––a hallmark opportunity for Georgia College as the state’s designated public liberal arts institution.

For example, Dr. Christopher Clark, professor of economics, and Dr. Diana Young, associate professor of psychology, teamed up for a VIP team called “GC Nudge Unit.”

Students learning about GC Nudge.
Students learning about GC Nudge.
Nudge research began at Georgia College in 2018 with about 24 students taking part. It’s a student-driven organization that applies behavioral economic principles to solve problems for local businesses and organizations like Sodexo, the Office of Sustainability, the Learning Center, University Retention Committee and University Housing.

“Behavioral economics has become an important field over the last few decades,” Clark said. “This gives students an opportunity to develop their skills and apply what they are learning outside the classroom.”

We feel anything that helps students engage with one another, with passionate faculty and the campus community is a good idea. The VIP webpage can help students and potential clients find out about fantastic opportunities like the GC Nudge Unit.
– Dr. Christopher Clark

Graduating with VIP research experience makes students more competitive in the job market, according to statistics. VIP also eliminates inequality with gains for all races, ethnicities and underrepresented minorities, Mahabaduge said.

It’s a win-win situation for all.

It puts Georgia College on the path President Cathy Cox recently outlined in her State of Campus address: reaching the next level of excellence.

“It’s time for us to come together and learn from each other and to learn different perspectives,” Mahabaduge said. “That’s something employers are looking for.”

Georgia College’s new VIP webpage can be found here: https://www.gcsu.edu/vip.