Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2020

VIP, Georgia Institute of Technology

Randal Abler, Julie Sonnenberg-Klein, Georgia Institute of Technology

CURE Development

Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) is a model of CUREs that has been implemented at a wide range of institutions - 25 VIP programs are currently operating at a variety of US institutions: large and small; public and private; Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); Hispanic-Serving Institutions; undergraduate-only; and R3 through AAU. VIP has also been established at 11 international institutions, with at least one on every continent except Antarctica. This page is primarily focused on the VIP program at Georgia Tech, but includes examples and implementation lessons from multiple institutions. The evolution of the VIP program has led to the creation of an advisory board that maintains a list of VIP "Essential Elements" which are required goals of all participating sites (although new sites are allowed leeway in working toward those elements during a startup phase). The essential elements are:

  • Each site has a faculty program director that is also a team advisor.
  • Each project team is embedded in and benefits a faculty advisor's scholarship and research efforts.
  • VIP projects are large-scale projects that last years or decades (the minimum effective project duration is about 5 years).
  • Teams are encouraged to be multidisciplinary teams (typical size of an established team is 10-15 students).
  • Team topics are based on faculty interests; students select teams based on personal interest.
  • VIP is curricular; all students are graded (i.e., no volunteers and no pass/fail grading).
  • Grading process includes rigorous documentation by students of their efforts and a peer evaluation process.
  • There are incentives for students to participate on the same team for at least 2 years.
  • Learning outcomes include development of both disciplinary and professional skills.
  • There is a dedicated classroom/meeting space for the teams to work in.

By adhering to these essential elements, the definition of VIP allows significant flexibility for adoption across many different institutional types while maintaining program quality and cohesion. On a larger scale, there is no reason to separate research and education. Students and faculty both benefit from working together in VIP teams, and VIP makes this possible on a very large scale. The multi-disciplinary breadth of VIP brings a lot of very good students with other insights to research interests. Often, VIP students become engaged because the research-oriented nature of the projects offer opportunities to explore applications of technical tools they have acquired. Additionally, once past the first semester shock of dealing with a non-traditional course, students often find the team nature to be constructive and motivational. The combination of these factors creates student excitement and dedication not typically seen in traditional classes. The multi-semester nature of the teams allows students to advance in skills, and observing that process is a rewarding aspect of leading a VIP team. Unfortunately VIP team mentoring involves some techniques and skills that are not intuitive to faculty educators and researchers. Showing other faculty how these teams can be created in a way that contributes to their individual research projects is therefore a key aspect of creating a sustainable VIP program.

Key Elements:

It is helpful to plan ahead for growth by making agreements with administration to support aspects of the program if certain growth goals are met. For example, we typically advise new sites to plan on hiring a staff-level program manager when they reach 10 teams. This involves some initial investment from the leadership team but provides long-term alleviation from mundane tasks.

During growth stages, strategically pursue opportunities and avoid tackling barriers unnecessarily. Many aspects of growing our program were based on opportunities for expansion. For example, developing course credit models in new departments was based on having a team advisor from that department who was willing to champion that credit model from within the department rather than pushing the associated curriculum committee to adopt a credit model before teams were taught in that department. This approach requires that the team advisors are senior faculty with time and reputation to influence the department. Accordingly, this was a barrier for junior faculty adopting the model from departments lacking VIP credit policies.

While multi-disciplinarity is a core feature of VIP teams, it can appear to create barriers that are not actually problematic. Accreditation is one issue that may be cited as a barrier, however, this is often an issue of how accreditation is handled internally rather than an actual issue of the accreditation body.

Faculty workload credit for teaching a VIP team is a critical issue and will depend on the department's policies. This will only work in an institution where faculty workload allows such discretion. When a team is first established in a department without other VIP teams, there will be no pre-existing policies and the founding faculty member will need to navigate this challenge. In a research-based institution, it is assumed that the teams will eventually provide enough research support for the advisors that ongoing advising of the team is a productive research investment. In such a situation, workload credit is appropriate for the first four semesters of a team at the rate of one course-equivalent for two semesters. In other situations, departmental or institutional support may be necessary to support the needed faculty workload.

VIP Background
The model for Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) grew out of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) Program, established at Purdue University in 1995. EPICS pioneered vertically integrated, large-scale, long-term undergraduate design teams. Students earned academic credit instead of stipends, making the program cost-effective and available to all students, not just those with time and resources for extracurricular activities. A limiting factor in EPICS scalability was the disconnect between typical faculty reward structures and the community focus of the projects.

VIP, which was officially launched at Purdue in 2001, kept the vertically integrated, large-scale, long-term structure of the undergraduate teams developed in EPICS, but shifted the primary focus of the projects from community service to faculty research. This shift enabled VIP teams to make meaningful contributions to the research projects of the teams' instructors and their graduate students. Teams became integral parts of their instructors' research efforts, and the instructors' research grants provided the resources – equipment, software, consumables, etc. – needed by the teams. Because the undergraduate students earned academic credit instead of stipends, and because faculty benefited from their teams' work, the model was found to be scalable.

The Georgia Tech (GT) VIP Program was started in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) in 2008. The goals of this new VIP site included: creating infrastructure that would enable the program to scale to 100s of VIP teams; creating policies that enable teams to be led by faculty from any discipline on campus; and enabling multidisciplinary teams that could include students from any discipline on campus that could contribute to the projects. There are now 71 teams at Georgia Tech, with faculty and students from every college on campus participating and every team is multidisciplinary. In starting up their programs, some universities have followed the same path as Georgia Tech, with programs starting at the department level and moving to the college or campus level. Others started at and stayed at the department level, while others started at the campus or college level.

Moving forward, we recognize the need to:

  • continue the annual meetings of the Consortium,
  • foster collaborations between VIP sites on regional and national scales,
  • provide a common repository for tools, policies, and best practices,
  • and provide a permanent umbrella that fosters the continued growth of all VIP sites and the creation of new VIP sites,

To move towards achieving these goals, we are in the process of establishing a non-profit organization call the "VIP Consortium, Inc." The main benefit of establishing a separate legal entity to run VIP is that it will enable and secure long-term sustainability. VIP is a large consortium that includes many member institutions, including some that are international. It is challenging to run a consortium of many institutions that is based out of one institution, where it may be subject to the policies of that institution and may be more challenging for other member institutions to feel fully represented. This move provides VIP leadership and a center for resources that is outside the bounds of any single institution. A further benefit is that a board of directors can include individuals with a wide range of expertise, including individuals outside of academia, such as people who have been involved in and have a lot of knowledge about philanthropies.

Although there are substantial benefits to pursuing non-profit status, this process has been difficult and costly in a few ways as well. The process of identifying an attorney and preparing paperwork to apply for 501c3 status has taken about one year. Currently, VIP is waiting for a decision from the IRS, which could take an additional 6 months. This process is costly, and it can be difficult to raise funds to support this effort before non-profit status is obtained. Additionally, creating a new legal, business entity creates conflicts of interest with faculty associated with universities. In VIP's case, the director was planning to retire soon anyway, so retired from the university to avoid creating a conflict of interest. Additionally, obtaining non-profit status can actually cut off some routes of funding that CUREs may be relying on, such as funding from the NSF. It is critical to identify new sources of funding early, such as charitable foundations. However, many charitable foundations require 3 years of audited financial records before they will donate any money, which can create additional challenges for starting the non-profit. Finally, it is important not to underestimate how challenging and time-consuming it can be to identify an attorney with the experience necessary to file a 501c3 application. It is not absolutely necessary to use an attorney, but VIP is a multi-national consortium, and this added enough complication that an attorney was necessary. They identified a local attorney by working with the Georgia Center for Non-Profits. Thus, while applying for non-profit status will afford VIP substantial benefits and increased power to be sustainable over the long term, it comes with a number of challenges.

Course Creation: VIP courses are stand-alone courses. Each department develops its own policy on how VIP credits can be used toward degree requirements. Curricular policies are typically initiated/established by VIP instructors from the given department. An analysis of VIP sites showed a close correlation between the number of departments with VIP instructors and the number of majors with credit-use policies for VIP courses (i.e. VIP instructors get policies established).

Polices that incentivize students to participate over longer periods of time (i.e., at least 2 years) are more effective. These can take the form of a threshold or minimum number of VIP credits needed to earn any credit or to complete degree requirements. Without incentives to encourage retention, the program may attract students who only need 1 more credit to graduate and are not retained over time in the program. VIP Directors do not have control over these policies, but we try to provide periodic feedback to departments. As in the establishment of policies, we have found that a VIP instructor or group of instructors can serve as "champions" for change within a department.

Effective policies, in order of effectiveness:
Note: VIP credits are earned 1 to 2 credit hours at a time (a typical course = 3 hours)

  • VIP as an option to fulfill an existing multi-semester sequence:
    • A 3-semester VIP sequence of 1 + 2 + 2 credits can be used to fulfill a multi-semester design requirement.
  • Threshold Policies:
    • If students earn 5 or fewer credits, they count as free electives
    • If students earn 6 credits, they all count as in-major electives
    • If students earn 5 or fewer credits, they count as free electives
    • If students earn 6 credits, 3 count as in major electives, 3 count as free electives, and students can roll their VIP Project directly into Senior Design without an introductory Senior Design course.

Georgia Tech initially used temporary course numbers through the School of ECE. Once the program became very large (nearly 1,000 students), the campus created dedicated VIP courses with a VIP subject code. Other universities have created courses earlier, which lends a sense of institutionalization. Some programs use campus-wide subject codes, like those used for freshman experience courses. Others use college-level subject codes, such as ENG.

The primary challenge is working with individual degree-granting units to establish policies on how VIP credits count towards degree requirements. This is a difficult process. Faculty within departments struggle to fit courses into their own curricula, so the addition of outside courses is not generally well-received. In programs with existing project courses, VIP seems like an obvious alternative. However, departments sometimes do not want to give up perceived power or control of content. These barriers are typically overcome by VIP instructors from the department because they understand the departmental culture and can speak to the value of the program.

As VIP has evolved, this academic credit issue has become wrapped up in a broader issue of how VIP fits into the classical institutional hierarchy. The faculty at Georgia Tech launching the program are housed in a particular school, yet the program now spans all of the colleges at Georgia Tech. The program has grown through a bottom up approach, through the enthusiasms of various faculty and students, without strong central administrative support. Maintaining the program's independence from a particular degree granting unit while allowing the faculty to participate from their unit has been an ongoing balance.

Our indicators of success are:

  • Growth in the number of teams over time. A healthy VIP program will continue to grow until they reach a saturation point. This has not yet happened at GA Tech (70 teams and counting). We expect programs at smaller institutions will plateau more quickly.
  • Team longevity. Ideally, a team will last as long as the instructor's research.
  • Student return rates. Return-rates are correlated with departmental credit-use policies, with some policies yielding much higher return rates. No differences have been seen in return-rates by student race/ethnicity.
  • Ability to provide faculty with the students (and majors) they need. This is informally monitored in a web-based student application system, which tracks student requests for VIP course registration permits.
  • Support from the administration to fund staff and course release time for directors.

VIP disseminates research results through the faculty advisors' own program of scholarship and exploration. Details are left up to the faculty on how to best share their work. Typically where faculty may publish their work in conjunction with doctoral students, VIP team undergraduate student team leaders are also involved in such efforts.


VIP is attractive because there is not a per team cost for the program since the research is embedded in the faculty member's ongoing research efforts that are typically funded on grants. The undergraduate students are participating for academic credit (rather than money) and faculty research grants include the resources, including the graduate students working on the project, that are needed to sustain the activities of the teams.

Initial expenses are relatively low. There needs to be web development for the listing/advertising of teams and processing applications of students to join those teams, and possibly outfitting VIP team meeting spaces (conference room setup).

The projects are led by faculty who may or may not receive release time for advising their project teams. Individual VIP teams require relatively little centralized support; staff support is not needed for the program until sites reach 10 or more teams. When a director becomes necessary, there is an initial expense of needed course release time for the director.

VIP Faculty should also be recognized as an important resource in the program. Because they benefit from their teams' work, they stay engaged. Their engagement is critical for the large-scale, long-term VIP teams. The success of existing teams inspires other faculty to start their own teams, enabling the program to grow in a natural way within departments and across campus.

Georgia Tech: At Georgia Tech, the Director and Co-Director of the program invested resources from an endowed chair and endowed center in the program and the Chair of ECE helped with both the launch of the program and its institutionalization once it began demonstrating success. The Chair provided course release time for the Director, giving him the time and space to cultivate a solid program. With the steady growth of the program to 15 teams as justification, the department agreed to support a staff member who served as Program Manager.

Other Universities: The first six VIP institutions to implement VIP Programs – Purdue, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Michigan, and Morehouse in the US and the Univ. of Strathclyde in Scotland – started on their own, typically with internal funds that were sometimes augmented with grants from NSF or other agencies. This initial success at dissemination led to a $5M grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust that enhanced the growth of the existing sites in the US, provided seed funding for 13 other US sites, and launched the annual meeting of all VIP sites. These 18 VIP sites then formed the VIP Consortium. The Helmsley grant expired in 2015, but the success of the sites participating in that effort has led 18 other institutions in the US and around the world to create VIP Programs of their own. There are now 36 institutions around the world that have VIP Programs and the annual meetings of the VIP Consortium continue. These annual meetings are an opportunity for all sites to share lessons learned, the results of education research they have conducted, demonstrate and share new software/web tools for running and scaling VIP Programs, discuss the spread and adaptation of VIP in new disciplines and countries, identify the elements that are critical to the success of VIP Programs, etc.

Stakeholder Buy-In

Key stakeholders include students, faculty, Institutional administrations, and corporate sponsors.

Student buy-in is achieved on two levels: interest in the projects and usefulness of the academic credits. Students are attracted to VIP because they are interested in the projects and they want an opportunity to contribute to them as well as learn from the faculty and graduate students they work with. However, if the credits cannot be used toward their degrees in meaningful ways, students are less likely to enroll. Additionally, for VIP teams to function well, they need students to participate for multiple semesters. This allows returning students to play larger roles on the teams and build professional skills. Typically, experienced students will serve as team leaders. In this role, they will take on more responsibility for the research tasks, train and mentor newer team members, and perform other team leadership duties. This benefits the students by providing them with an opportunity to develop leadership abilities and also benefits the faculty by easing their work load and mentoring responsibilities. We have found a correlation between departmental credit-use policies and multi-semester participation in VIP. In addition to credit polices, if your CURE is an optional program, you should actively engage academic advisors. They are the interface between the department and students and can help students understand policies as well as options. Engagement can include distribution of brochures, periodic reports on their enrollment levels in the program, and thank-you luncheons.

Faculty recruitment is similar across the consortium, and it relies on personal interaction and word-of-mouth. VIP Directors make presentations at meetings of faculty, chairs and deans. In turn, the programs attract faculty working on large-scale projects that require expertise from multiple disciplines, and faculty interested in trying new ideas in low stakes settings. VIP gives them a framework/vehicle to meet their needs. At Georgia Tech, the School of ECE provides teaching-release time to VIP instructors (1 course/year, with a typical teaching load of 3/year). No other departments on campus provide release time, but faculty from other departments continue to establish and stay with their teams. To build the program, it is important to only start teams for faculty who really want to work with undergraduates, and whose projects are large enough to engage many students. It's better to have a small group of committed mentors than a larger group of advisors who are less engaged.

Sustaining faculty VIP team leads is a key aspect of VIP Program sustainability. VIP teams are truly embedded in faculty research portfolios. Faculty approach VIP and request teams because they recognize the opportunity to access expertise outside their own field, get more help than their graduate students can provide alone, explore new ideas in a low-risk setting, and capitalize on a framework for working with large teams of undergraduates. While we ask faculty to establish teams with projects that will last at least 3-5 years, teams evolve with and become embedded in the instructors' research portfolios. Leading the VIP team becomes business as usual. Teams contribute to research papers, and they can be included in proposals as broader impacts, because of the broad reach of each team (diversity in majors, student background, etc.).

Gaining support from administrators is important. At Georgia Tech, the ECE Department Chair saw value in the VIP model and was willing to take a risk on the program. He provided release time for the director and for faculty who led VIP teams (1 course per year, with a usual teaching load of 3/year). As student enrollment increased and more faculty established teams, the College of Engineering recognized the program's value and began providing financial support. Many universities now point to successful VIP Programs at other universities as examples to secure initial buy-in. This buy-in does not always include release time for a program director, which can make it difficult for them to build toward and achieve the critical mass required for a sustainable and large scale program.

Corporate partnerships and research sponsors have been a key supporter of VIP. Corporations value the professional skills that VIP participants develop through working in multidisciplinary teams of 10-20 participants, which closely approximate many workplace environments. Additionally, VIP teams allow potential corporate sponsors to leverage the human resources benefits of targeted student recruiting in a specific area of work as a gateway to research sponsorship. At Georgia Tech, external companies can sponsor teams for $15,000/year.

Sustaining Change

VIP Program sustainability differs from most CUREs. At highly research-active universities with moderate teaching loads, there is not a per-team cost to the institution. Instead, the VIP team is embedded in a professor's existing research efforts. Sustainability is typically characterized by release time for VIP Directors, funding for VIP staff, and VIP becoming a fund-raising priority for the institution. Thus, while VIP Directors serve as champions on their campuses, garnering support from higher-level administration is often the tipping point.

At Georgia Tech, support from the College of Engineering has made the program sustainable. We were initially supported by an academic department (which at that time was the critical element for department-level sustainability). As the program grew, it required additional staff. This was difficult to justify at the departmental level, because VIP serves students and faculty from many departments. We were able to make a strong case for support at the college because so many departments were involved. The program essentially grew beyond our department, and we were then able to justify funding from the College of Engineering.

Similar processes have happened at other universities. For example, at the University of Hawaii, the College of Engineering was supportive of the VIP program under the start-up grant. After the grant ended, the Dean of Engineering continued to provide funds for events, and College of Engineering staff provide administrative assistance. At NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, the tipping point occurred when the school adopted VIP as a college-wide priority. The program now receives funding for a full-time staff member, and their budget is supplemented by their Office of Development.

At institutions with fewer sponsored projects, teams may need financial support. At Boise State University, the Provost piloted a program in which teams would receive a share of the tuition paid for VIP credit hours. The system has evolved, with colleges now contributing funds in proportion to the number of VIP credit hours taken by their students. These funds are used to support teams with equipment, software, and other research-related expenses.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, the Associate Dean (who was also a VIP team leader) identified an existing endowment that aligned well with VIP and was not dedicated to any specific program. He suggested a repurposing of the grant to support VIP, and the donors strongly supported it. The endowment now provides $10,000 in start-up funding to each new VIP team.

Advice for Implementation

Increase visibility on campus and advertise the mutual benefits for both faculty and students. Emphasizing how all stakeholders can benefit creates enthusiasm in both students and faculty, and helps alleviate burnout from faculty. In the early years of the program at Georgia Tech, we focused on two areas: establishing teams (recruiting faculty and students) and establishing credit use policies (so the program would benefit students). These were extremely important and have created a strong foundation for the program. However, we did not put energy into campus visibility. In recent years, newer and smaller programs have put more resources into campus visibility (hiring communications staff, getting stories into campus publications, etc.). They have greater visibility than we do, and they are now higher priorities in campus fund-raising efforts. If we had put more resources into internal communications and visibility, we would probably be better positioned within the university.

Early on, connect with the campus faculty professional development team. In the early years of the program, the Director mentored new instructors (for example, by attending team meetings). This was not a scalable approach and did not encourage interaction between instructors. Connecting with our campus faculty professional development group improved our on-boarding process for new instructors. In addition, the group developed custom programs for our experienced instructors (round-table discussion, panels, faculty learning communities). These have been an asset to us, as we try to understand what our faculty need, and to faculty, who benefit from the additional support.

The local VIP director should monitor and intervene to head off problems. The director should actively resist outside pressures to add material to the program that would undermine this enthusiasm. VIP has grown because of interest and enthusiasm from both faculty and students. Maintaining the program as something interesting and exciting to both the faculty and the students is critical. It is also critical that someone who deeply understands the program has the ability to shut down non-functional teams, as these create long-term problems. The VIP director should take an interest in the success of all of the VIP teams and review potential issues with each team to attempt to help the advisors navigate such problems. For example, some advisors are inclined to give their entire team A's. Since VIP is a multi-semester experience this quickly becomes common knowledge on that team, and the team becomes nonproductive as a result.

Continual growth is an intentional process and should not be done passively. At any given campus, the VIP model has the potential to grow into a large multidisciplinary program, but for this to happen, VIP Directors must be intentional. Growth is an ongoing process, and it requires ongoing time, attention, and networking. "Business as usual" must include outreach to other departments. We are in our tenth year at Georgia Tech, and this is still the case for us.

Do not get discouraged by initial rejections or road blocks. Establishing a new VIP program is not always a smooth process and may require patience and trouble shooting. For example, it can be difficult to get departments to establish credit systems. Not all departments support project-based learning, and it can be difficult for departments to give up perceived power or control of course content. Do not be discouraged by rejection. Departments that initially reject changes may warm to the proposal once their own faculty lead VIP teams. These faculty become champions within the departments, and can turn everything around. Another example is dealing with accreditation. Accreditation rules were often used as excuses for not allowing certain policies, but we learned over time that this was not the case. New policies simply needed to be incorporated into the accreditation process.

Engage with the arts and humanities professors. They have amazing ideas and are hungry for ways to involve undergraduates in their scholarship.

Be flexible. Context matters; every campus is different and one size does not fit all. Do not try to reshape your campus to fit VIP. Instead, listen to your faculty and students and adapt the VIP program to your campus' culture.