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22 February 2021

Starting-up a Vertically Integrated Project


Dr Ian Smith
VIP Director and Associate Dean of Education (Arts and Divinity) University of St Andrews


The first of two connected blogs looking at the introduction and impact of Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) initiatives in Scotland, Dr Ian Smith describes the implementation of a new VIP programme at the University of St Andrews in 2020/21 and reflects on what they have learned so far.

Working together productively in a diverse team to find creative solutions to problems or to make progress on a project is a key employability skill in the 21st century. Yet the cultivation of this graduate attribute is not always readily accommodated within the traditional higher education curriculum.

For the University of St Andrews, the introduction of the Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) initiative this academic year has provided scaffolding to support project-based learning in heterogeneous teams. At its heart, a VIP brings together a student team formed from different disciplines and levels of study to contribute to an ongoing research project for credit and grades. Its appeal to students includes augmenting research skills and to staff the project for credit and grades. Its appeal to students includes augmenting research skills and to staff the opportunity to build research groups and facilitate cross-disciplinary collaborations. Embedded in the curriculum, a VIP is inclusive in that it provides an experience of a research team which may only otherwise be available outside of the curriculum and to those students with the spare time to participate. The added attraction for St Andrews is that VIP permits students to enhance their enterprise capabilities of creativity, innovative thinking, opportunity recognition, reflection and leadership and more.

Appropriately, given the collaborative identity of VIP, its implementation at St Andrews was inspired and assisted by the pioneers of the mature VIP site at the University of Strathclyde - Steve Marshall and Scott Strachan. They delivered a seminar to the Enterprise Education group in St Andrews and facilitated attendance at the annual VIP conference at its home base at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. This provided the opportunity to network with representatives from VIP sites on every continent. While VIP is dominated by Schools of Engineering, reflecting the disciplinary background in electrical engineering of the VIP founder, Ed Coyle, the principles and rationale of VIP are applicable to the full range of academic disciplines. Subsequently, Ed and Steve visited St Andrews to help promote VIP to potential supervisors at an internal Academic Forum and to share their experiences with senior staff.

As a pilot, we started-up VIP with 5 projects and 27 students in Semester 1 of 2020-21. This has grown to 8 projects and 71 students in Semester 2. The 8 projects are led by 17 supervisors from 7 Schools across both Arts and Sciences, including research on Dolphin Acoustics, Mathematical Software, War Veterans and caps on Houses in Multiple Occupation. Two projects are hosted within the School of History and each co-led by a supervisory team, subverting the solitary researcher reputation of the humanities. Students apply to join a project and supervisors select based on the quality of the match, the needs of the project and the benefits for continuity of enrolling students of different vintages. More than two-thirds of students continued with their projects into the second semester and these old hands were able to provide an element of mentorship and induction to newcomers.

An institutional challenge for implementing VIP is the vertical dimension in terms of combining students from different levels of study. While the curricular support system readily accommodates interdisciplinary modules, it is not designed for intergenerational classes which bring together students from multiple cohorts. An additional complication is that credit levels for standard modules differ both within and between programmes. To provide a suitable curricular infrastructure, the preferred solution was to set up VIP shell modules in units of 10, 15 and 20 credits by semester for every level of study. A consequence is that there is no one-to-one mapping from a module to a project. Each VIP has students from multiple shell modules and vice versa.

The VIP set-up has characteristics which make it more demanding to deliver than standard modules or projects. Where credit levels vary across members of the student team, this needs to be recognised in the workload allocated to individual students. Additionally, assessment and grading must respect not only credits but also the level of the student and assure quality. The practical approach to these requirements is through the appropriate assignment of tasks and project responsibilities, both to calibrate academic standards and student workload.

Initial feedback from supervisors and students is highly promising, though some challenges remain for scaling up the VIP initiative. Degree programme pathways do not always have space for interdisciplinary activity and not all Schools have capacity to accommodate a VIP without sacrificing an existing module or adding to the overall teaching workload. Still, with new projects in the pipeline for 2021-2022, we are looking forward to expanding VIP opportunities further for the benefit of students and staff.

Explore the research posters produced by our VIP students in semester one of the 2020-2021 academic year.