For the past eight years, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute has had the distinction of hosting students from the An Achievable Dream Academy for annual visits to Virginia Tech’s campuses in Blacksburg and Roanoke.

An Achievable Dream Academy was created in 1992 through a unique collaboration between Newport News Public Schools, the City of Newport News, and the local business community. The K-12 academic program is dedicated to the idea that college and successful careers are achievable for everyone.

“This is a fantastic program because it assures these kids that Virginia Tech is a choice for them,” said Kristy Collins, the director of education and outreach at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Through this experience, kids get to explore other parts of Virginia and learn important life skills, like time management and presenting.”

The program was developed in collaboration with Net.Science, a National Science Foundation grant and a self-sustaining cyberinfrastructure that is a community resource for network science. The grant, formally known as CINES: A Scalable Cyberinfrastructure for Sustained Innovation in Network Engineering and Science, allowed fourteen determined and tenacious students from An Achievable Dream Academy to spend a week on the Virginia Tech campus at no expense for transportation, meals, or housing.

Network science was at the core of the weeklong program. The field studies the connections that we make every day - through computer systems, social interactions, and even the neural networks in our brains - and strives to find new ways to measure, predict, and visualize them.

Students, also called Dreamers, were given a network science project for a homework assignment. Just to prove how pervasive network science is, they were asked to list 10 hip-hop artist collaborations that they were familiar with. The results were then compiled into a database for analysis and then stored. Once the results are quantified, they will be published on the Net.Science website.

But the fun didn’t stop there. On their first day, students participated in a “STEM of Hip-Hop” activity. Led by members of Digging in the Crates: Hip Hop Studies at Virginia Tech (VTDITC), the session demonstrated how working class Black and brown teenagers used the resources available to them to create hip-hop music. Students, then, had a chance to practice their skills using top of the line DJing equipment such as turntables, DJ controllers and microphones, as well as drum machines.

“Hip-hop is STEAM in action,” said Craig Arthur, the head of community engagement at University Libraries and the program chair for VTDITC. “The #VTDITC community recognizes that the creation of art requires scholarship. Traditional and newer hip-hop arts practices, for example, rely heavily on the use of technology and an innovative spirit. We recently modified a Numark PT01 portable to make it more suited for DJing by changing the platter, adding a printed circuit board tonearm, and switching the preamplifier. If that's not STEAM, we don't know what is.”

Arthur was also joined by college-aged members of VTDITC, including Jasmine Weiss, a senior majoring in sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Jon Kabongo, a graduate student in the Department of English, and DeRay Manning, a senior studying management in the Pamplin College of Business, who interacted with the students on a personal level - and even performed some raps on the spot.

One person is standing in front of a turntable and laptop, pointing at the turntable. Two students look inquisitively.
Craig Arthur, head of community engagement at University Libraries and the program chair for Digging in the Crates: Hip Hop Studies at Virginia Tech, shows students all of the equipment that are needed for DJing. Photo courtesy of Kendall Daniels for Virginia Tech.

Students also took the 45-minute trek to Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTC) located in Roanoke There, they participated in a variety of activities including learning to operate ultrasound machines, tie suture knots, take vital signs, use the anatomage table and cardiopulmonary simulator, as well as portray a patient interaction in our Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) suite.

“I loved watching the OSCE examinations. The Dreamer was the physician and the medical student was the patient, and the Dreamers had to ask questions to determine what was wrong with the patient based on the notes and some additional materials. At first, the students were very nervous but they loved ‘acting like a doctor’ and giving a diagnosis,” said Angelica Witcher, director of student affairs at VTC.

The medical students and teachers are always delighted to see the participants, Witcher said. Witcher had a soft spot in her heart for the program, having written her dissertation on An Achievable Dream Academy and students' access to higher education.

For 13 of the 14 students from An Achievable Dream Academy, college is approaching quickly. However, for individuals with socioeconomic obstacles, paying for college and spending four years away from their family seems out of reach. 

The Virginia Tech visits hope to convince them that attaining a college degree can be a reality.

Students are given the full campus experience, including trips to iconic locations on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus such as D2 at Dietrick Hall, Advanced Research Computing's HyperCube, and the Hahn Horticulture Garden.

When alumni from An Achievable Dream Academy start their academic careers at Virginia Tech, Collins offers her personal and professional support by providing them with work study and job recommendations. 

Alonda Johnson, currently a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in packaging systems and design, was a student at An Achievable Dream Academy from Fall 2010 until 2018, when she graduated from high school. She went to Virginia Tech twice, first during her sophomore year and again during her junior year.

“An Achievable Dream Academy provided me with opportunities to visit campus throughout my high school career, as well as establishing a support system for me before I even arrived on campus by connecting me with alumni and staff,” said Johnson, who also works part-time for Carilion Clinic and as a clinical assistant at the Velocity Care Center. “They pushed me to achieve my goals by encouraging me to keep going when things were tough in my life and by continuing to support me even when I didn't specifically ask for it.”

Due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, residence halls were closed at Virginia Tech, leaving students from An Achievable Dream Academy with no place to stay. In order to continue, the program had to change gears and seek assistance. Virginia Tech's College Access Collaborative (CAC) heeded the call.

CAC is dedicated to improving academic preparation, access, and affordability for first-generation, low-income, underrepresented minorities (Black, Latino, and Native American), women, and students from rural and inner-city communities.

“The collaboration that we have with the College Access Collaborative was, and is, so amazing,” said Collins. “They were able to provide us with extra funds to go towards the hotel rooms. I don’t think that this program would have happened this year without their support and their desire to have us.” 

Three faculty members from the University of Virginia's Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing division took part in the program by providing networking science lectures:

  • Chris J. Kuhlman, a research associate professor
  • Dustin Machi, a senior software architect
  • S.S. Ravi, a research professor and a distinguished teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University at Albany-SUNY

Anticipation is ramping up for next year's program, which will cover topics such as health science and COVID-19, with support from an NSF Expeditions grant.

National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant No. OAC-1916805. Award Abstract #1916805. Collaborative Research: Framework: Software: CINES: A Scalable Cyberinfrastructure for Sustained Innovation in Network Engineering and Science.

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