NASA's Bolden helps Purdue announce 'Systems Collaboratory'

September 28, 2015  


Purdue Collaboratory

Provost Deba Dutta, NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Abhijit Deshmukh, head of the School of Industrial Engineering, at the kickoff of the Purdue Systems Collaboratory, which is aimed at integrating multidisciplinary teaching and research stressing the "convergence of knowledge" in problem solving. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)
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NASA administrator Charles Bolden on Friday (Sept. 25) helped kick off the Purdue Systems Collaboratory aimed at integrating multidisciplinary teaching and research stressing the "convergence of knowledge" in problem solving.

Bolden spoke at the ceremony to announce the initiative in the atrium of the Krach Leadership Center.

The Collaboratory's approach leverages Purdue's strengths in the area of complex systems.

"We are building a community from a research perspective that's looking at cross-disciplinary problems and also thinking about how we educate all of our students including the next generation of political science majors, English majors, business majors and engineering majors, to think about these kinds of problems," said Purdue Provost Deba Dutta, executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity and a professor of mechanical engineering. "Because complex systems span many disciplines and domains, finding solutions requires a convergence of knowledge from all relevant areas."

For example, properly managing a range of projects and situations from product development to natural disasters requires professionals capable of understanding and dealing with more than their own specialties.

"Political scientists contribute to understanding the human dimension of a problem," said Rosalee Clawson, professor and head of the Department of Political Science. "Take climate change, science and engineering provide us with a good understanding of the causes and negative impact of climate change but politics is where we get stuck in remedying the problem. The Systems Collaboratory, through research and student learning opportunities, will demonstrate how to see beyond the technological solution."

In addition to product development, natural disaster recovery and climate change, other examples include transportation infrastructure, food security and power resources such as nuclear facilities.

"Just trying to take care of disaster relief after a hurricane or a tornado, you need to consider how people are going to react, what they will do, what they will need the most and when they will need it," said Abhijit Deshmukh, head of the School of Industrial Engineering. "We've built power grids, we've built launch vehicles and rockets and other complex systems, but the hardest part is how to account for the human interaction. Our ability to create complex systems has far exceeded the capability to understand and manage them. What's most important is that the Systems Collaboratory drives home the concept of the convergence of knowledge - physical sciences, social sciences, arts, life sciences - which is different from what other universities are doing."

The approach is needed to both better prepare students and also tackle research projects. This collaboratory also reflects the goals of Purdue Moves, which is a range of initiatives designed to broaden the university’s global impact and enhance educational opportunities for its students while remaining affordable.

"In the corporate world the engineering community has a hard time working with the marketing people, the financial people and others crucial to the success of a project, and so you are always trying to bridge that gap," said Dan Dumbacher, a Purdue professor of professional practice and a retired NASA engineer. "In my old world I spent a lot of time bridging the gap between the engineering world and the policymakers in Washington. Humans are invariably an essential, and often least understood, element of these systems. So understanding and integrating the human dimension is a central element of any solution."

Purdue created an honors course last fall titled "It's A Complex World" to address the problem. It was co-taught by faculty members from political science, computer science, industrial engineering and mechanical engineering.

"We had students from many different degree tracks. And the idea was to mix those, encourage interaction and get them working with each other on a problem no one person could solve by themselves," Deshmukh said. "All the students just loved that course. The feedback was extremely positive. We are trying to figure out how we can scale that one course up to a broader audience."

Through the Collaboratory, Purdue is working to create a concentration of courses, first at the graduate level, promoting the science of systems and systems thinking.

"We are also going to take advantage of courses that already exist," Dumbacher said. "Purdue is thinking about this differently than other universities. We are thinking about this from a holistic perspective. There are various attempts at other universities, where they go part of the way. The unique thing about Purdue is that we're working to make it campus-wide."

Purdue has the ideal portfolio to attack the problem, said Deshmukh.

"We are skilled at interdisciplinary research and are well-established in global collaboration networks," he said. "And we have a well-developed high performance computing capability and broad interest and expertise in systems domains. In addition, Purdue has external partners who share our passion and interest in our broader definition of systems thinking and integration." 


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