College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences; Graduate School; Research

Thinking BIG: Engineers transform graduate education through convergence research


Graduate students are researching some of society’s most pressing challenges and learning to collaborate across disciplines in two separate programs that have positioned Clemson University at the forefront of a nationwide effort to transform STEM graduate education.

One of the programs is led by Cole Smith, associate provost for academic initiatives, and one is led by Laine Mears, the BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing.

Cole Smith, left, and Laine Mears meet in the Watt Family Innovation Center to talk about the graduate programs they are overseeing and were made possible by the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.
Cole Smith, left, and Laine Mears meet in the Watt Family Innovation Center to talk about the graduate programs they are overseeing and were made possible by the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

Smith and Mears are placing a strong emphasis on convergence research, one of the National Science Foundation’s “10 Big Ideas.” The idea is that research should be driven by specific and compelling problems and that specialists from a wide range of disciplines should come together to solve those problems.

For the engineers involved, it means they no longer work only with other engineers. On any given day, they could be collaborating with students and faculty members in political science, psychology, education, and a variety of other disciplines.

Both programs are open to master’s and Ph.D. students, and each program is funded by its own $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

The National Science Foundation has distributed 149 of the grants to institutions in 41 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, according to the foundation’s website. South Carolina has two– both at Clemson.

The program is “designed to encourage the development and implementation of bold, new, and potentially transformative models for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduate education training,” according to the foundation.

In the program that Smith leads, students learn to root out vulnerabilities in a wide range of infrastructure systems that rely on each other to provide society’s basic services, ranging from clean water and food to power and communications.

In Mears’ program, students are learning to bring together human workers and internet-connected machines that are often loaded with sensors and generating massive amounts of data. His program is the first in the nation to match graduate students with technical college students on an assembly line built for research.

About 25 students were enrolled in the Smith-led program, which launched in 2016. Mears, who received his grant in September 2018, expected to have 10 students by fall 2019 and to later grow the program to about 25.

Cole Smith
Cole Smith

Graduates continue to get a traditional degree in their home departments– such as industrial engineering or automotive engineering– but also receive a special designation showing they have participated in a cutting-edge graduate program.

Smith and Mears sat down with IDEAS magazine at the end of the fall 2018 semester to discuss the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program, often called NRT for short, and what’s coming next. Comments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


What is an NRT grant and what makes it special?

Mears: It’s a grant from the National Science Foundation to establish new ways of educating graduate students. It’s a way to look at convergence research. It involves multidisciplinary research projects and creating new, creative ways of educating people in how they should be thinking about these coupled problems, which is really important right now. All signs are pointing toward getting away from the siloed way of educating students.  We want to get them into open-ended problems, multi-disciplinary problems, and help them not become a master of everything but at least touch the other domains so they know how their decisions affect other domains.

Smith: And it’s very important that students see teamwork as an integral part of their education through this. It’s not just a matter of being co-advised by a few different professors, but  also interacting with different students from other majors who think about problems completely differently from how they might. The program also gets them to a point where they can innovate their own research questions. It’s not just being pushed by the advisor or the advisor and the students in their own silo, but also talking to a student from policy or planning or political science. They bring up issues that maybe an engineer never would have thought needed to be addressed in the first place.


Laine Mears
Laine Mears

Clemson has two NRT-funded graduate programs. How prestigious is that?

Smith: I’d say it’s a very prestigious setting we’re in right now. I don’t necessarily think two is the limit on this either.  There are more opportunities, because a lot of the faculty that we have brought in recently have this interdisciplinary mindset. It’s not a surprise that we’ve been successful.


Has any goal been set for Clemson to get a certain number of NRT grants?

Smith: We do want to be major players in all of the funding opportunities that are out there, whether that’s an engineering research center, whether that’s an NRT. Clemson is a top university, a premier research university. We should be getting these types of research grants and we’re showing that we belong in there right now.

Mears: A very wise mentor said to me when I started the academic side to my career, “Think big.” And so we’re going after these bigger programs, these longer-lasting programs, and they’re really giving us a nice base to build off of. We’re building smaller, industrial-type of grants over the top of this. So it’s a nice bassline, and then you’re riffing on top of that with smaller grants. You can be a little bit more adventurous with the kinds of things that you try.


Does having two NRTs make it easier to get a third and fourth and so on?

Mears: I see some benefits to having two. We’ve already been talking with the personnel over in Cole’s program about what we need to watch out for and the things we need to be measuring.

Smith: We learn from theirs, too, because they bring this infusion of new ideas that we want to adopt within our own NRT. We’re building up some cultural knowledge of how you run these programs and  some of the great ideas and some of the things we didn’t think of within our own.


Could each of you tell me about the graduate programs you’ve established with NRT funding?

 Smith: Ours is in resilient infrastructure and environmental systems. The idea is that when you want to try to address the resiliency of truly interconnected complex systems, you can’t come at it from one discipline. You have to understand where IT systems underlie these complex, integrated systems. You have to understand what the engineered aspects of them are. But you also have to understand public policy implementation and implications. You have to understand the psychology and how people will interface with these systems. It is an enormously complicated problem to deal with in a comprehensive manner. Those resilient infrastructures may be the entire food system we have in the country, or it might be coupled power and communication systems.

Modeling them is a very difficult undertaking because you have to be an expert at so many different things, and you also have to understand the connections that also lie in between those systems. But that’s only half the battle because even as you model these systems, you’re trying to improve them. You’re trying to optimize them. You’re trying to figure out with limited resources how you build the most robust system that can effectively serve the needs of diverse populations who are going to interface with technology in far different ways. It’s an amazingly rich area for research. That’s why we have so many people from so many different disciplines– pretty much all the different engineering disciplines and then many folks outside of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. Disciplines include mathematical sciences; planning, design, and the built environment, economics, and certainly computer science. These are all core competencies.


How about yours, Dr. Mears?

Mears: We’re working on this convergence of the industrial Internet of Things– interconnected machines and software systems–  and people who use them. The way it stands now is that this interconnected, networked Internet of Things spits information out, and people take that information and go make decisions. We’re working to bring a more holistic network and make this Internet of People and Things. So, we’re looking at technologies that connect people, provide data from people and give data immediately back to people. We’re looking at augmented reality, virtual reality, and haptic-types of feedbacks, and how those can map into systems of manufacturing. We’re running research projects and inventing new things. That’s what’s happening right now. And we’re looking at the industrialization side, which means asking how we can commercialize the things that we’re inventing. How do we find companies or create companies that make these things and that could get them out into the industrial network?


What else do you think readers should know about Clemson’s NRT-funded graduate programs?

Smith: This kind of research is accessible to students. They understand that there is real impact in what they are doing. It’s an immediate impact. It’s not a theoretical construct, which then leads into other things, which eventually appears on the market. What we’re doing with these NRT programs, it’s easy to see how students would want to be involved with this. One of the major problems that all academics face right now is broadening that pipeline– broadening that participation within graduate education– and these NRT programs are absolutely essential to improving our pipeline.



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