Aaron Ohta

A photo of Aaron Ohta

Title: Professor
Department: Electrical and Computer Engineering
College/School: Engineering
Showcase Course: ENGR 196 / 296 / 396, various capstone, grad courses
Email: aohta@hawaii.edu

Working on team projects also provides students with an experience that approximates the working environment in many companies, and gives students the opportunity to socialize in a more relaxed setting.

Click to read more about Aaron’s Teaching Philosophy

Project-oriented active learning has been demonstrated to be an important pedagogical practice (Guo 2020). Furthermore, industry professionals report improved results from students who participate in multidisciplinary projects (Hotaling 2012, Bingham 2015). Students often view projects as fun and exciting, allowing them to work on something that matches their interests. Projects also help them apply the knowledge gained from lecture courses to more concrete problems. Working on team projects also provides students with an experience that approximates the working environment in many companies, and gives students the opportunity to socialize in a more relaxed setting.

All of these advantages of project-based learning, and more, are realized by the UH Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program, which uses long-term, in-depth, project-based learning to engage students and prepare them for future careers.

Showcase Video
Teaching Practice


UH is part of the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Consortium, which consists of more than 30 universities worldwide (lead institution: Georgia Institute of Technology). The hallmarks of VIP teams were created by Prof. Edward Coyle (Georgia Tech) and agreed upon by all VIP Consortium institutions:

  • Vertical integration for efficient mentoring and learning: teams consist of a faculty mentor, graduate student researchers, and undergraduates from the freshman to senior levels. The teams are large (10 or more students) and multidisciplinary, providing a rich experience. More experienced students help mentor new VIP students, allowing students to practice both teamwork and leadership skills.
  • Long-term, exciting topics: The projects are long-term (at least 5 years in scope) and are based on the scholarly work of the faculty advisor. VIP students work on the same project over multiple semesters, providing them with a meaningful, in-depth experience.
  • Integration with curricula: Students in VIP teams earn academic credit for their participation. Their efforts are co-curricular, rather than extracurricular, helping to engage students without overburdening them. VIP undergraduate students take ENGR 196 / 296 / 396 (Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior VIP Project courses, respectively), and these courses count within the curriculum of participating departments. Students can also participate in VIP teams to fulfill their department’s capstone course requirements. Graduate students on VIP teams can earn 699 course credit within their department.

The UH VIP Program was established in 2015. It currently consists of 18 teams and more than 200 students.


The hallmarks of the VIP teams provide a framework for project-based active learning with all the advantages mentioned in the “Teaching Philosophy” section. In addition, participating in a VIP team also provides students with in-depth learning on a topic of their interest. Senior undergraduate students on VIP teams have already worked on the project for at least one academic year; this familiarity with the project allows many seniors to tackle topics and produce results at the level of a first-year graduate student.

Furthermore, students in VIP teams are a unique cohort; they consistently work together over multiple semesters, but are at different stages in their educational journey. This is an ideal environment for peer mentoring, and senior and graduate students on VIP teams are able to develop their leadership and mentoring skills. The peer mentoring has an additional benefit of reducing the burden on the faculty mentor, as the more experienced students can help to train and transfer knowledge to students new to the project. This is an important factor that allows a single faculty advisor to effectively supervise a team of 10 or more students per semester (one team had over 40 students). It is a significant effort to start a VIP team; however, once a team has been established, it is easier to maintain in subsequent semesters because of peer mentoring. To date, all the VIP teams that have been started are still ongoing, except for cases where the faculty advisor is no longer at UH.

Participating in a VIP team also helps to give students a sense of community, and gives them a reason to be engaged and present on campus. This advantage was disrupted over the last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, even VIP teams that were taught fully online had VIP students holding regular Zoom meetings with their teammates, which were interactions that might not have otherwise taken place.

VIP teams can also involve the community. Many employers are now aware of the UH VIP Program. Some companies are so interested in VIP teams that they sponsor teams aligned with their interests, and/or provide mentorship to VIP students. Thus, the VIP Program helps with student engagement as well as community engagement.


Each VIP faculty advisor is given the autonomy to run their team as they wish, as long as they follow the hallmarks of VIP teams, and the generalized guidelines of the ENGR 196 / 296 / 396 course syllabi. Best practices and tools are shared among the VIP faculty advisors.

Currently, the majority of the VIP teams and VIP students are from the College of Engineering, but the ENGR 196 / 296 / 396 course sequence is open to all majors. The hallmarks of VIP teams are not specific or constrained to any particular field of study. Currently, the UH VIP Program is seeking to add more teams from other departments, including non-STEM fields. (Some other VIP Consortium institutions, such as the University of Strathclyde, have teams headed by faculty members in the humanities and other non-STEM fields.)

The UH VIP Program is based on Manoa campus, but extends to other campuses, including KCC, LCC, WCC, HCC, and Maui College. These campuses offer SCI 295 courses covering topics of the various VIP teams. An MOU allows students to use the SCI 295 credit for ENGR 296, helping students transferring from the other campuses to UH Manoa. There is also a summer program for transfer students to take ENGR 296 and participate in UH Manoa VIP teams.


Over the past four academic years, the UH VIP Program had an average of 200 students per semester. This is comparable to VIP Programs at the University of Washington, Texas A&M University, and other institutions with larger student bodies. Thus, the UH VIP Program is doing well at attracting and retaining students.

Currently, there is no data on outcomes such as graduation rates for VIP students. However, we expect to have data on this by the end of this year.

Anecdotally, there are many VIP student success stories. Some are available on the UH VIP website. Other student successes include:

  • Four VIP students were awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships (George Zhang, 2017; Sasha Yamada, 2019; Nicholas Yama and Kevin Kam, 2020)
  • Many VIP students are authors on scholarly publications, including peer-reviewed journal papers and conference presentations
  • A VIP graduate student won the UH Student Excellence in Research award (Ryan Gough, 2016)

Faculty advisors in the UH VIP Program have been recognized for their teaching:

  • Chancellor’s Citation for Meritorious Teaching (A. Zachary Trimble, 2018)
  • Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Teaching (David Garmire, 2016; Philip Johnson, 2019)
  • Frances Davis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (A. Zachary Trimble, 2021)

In addition, no faculty advisor has quit the VIP Program (although one faculty member did leave UH Manoa). Instead, the UH VIP Program has been steadily growing, as new teams are added every year.

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