Tori Rudisil unearthed a new curiosity during a recent visit to the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg.

“I really loved the rocks they showed us,” said the fifth-grade student. “Did you know that two rocks can be of the same size and weigh differently?”

Tori was one of 68 students from neighboring Pulaski Elementary School who took part in a Hokie for a Day event, during the spring semester.

“This is my dream school,” Tori said.

Offered through the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology’s (ICAT) Center for Educational Networks and Impacts, the initiative gives about 1,200 elementary students an up-close experience with Virginia Tech, each year. The visit includes being introduced to university faculty, research, and facilities, as well as students, members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, and student athletes.

“All of this wonderful science, research, and university life is happening in this kids’ backyards, and without Hokie for a Day it can stay hidden behind the Hokie Stone for a lot of them,” said Phyllis Newbill, ICAT’s associate director of educational networks. “And the real beauty of it is the kids the program includes. It’s not just the gifted kids. It’s not just the kids whose parents bring them. It’s making all these great aspects of Virginia Tech open to every fifth grader who gets on the bus.”

Hokie for a Day is one of the center’s multiple programs that aims to bridge the gap between K-12 and higher education. Those efforts also include such high-profile events as ICAT Day and the Virginia Tech Science Festival in Blacksburg as well as the ACCelerate Creativity and Innovation Festival in Washington, D.C. Combined with the center’s Educator Liaison Network, they engage thousands of children each year.

Since its formation in 2015, the Center for Educational Networks and Impacts has worked hard  to connect Virginia Tech expertise one-on-one with public schools and museums in Southwest Virginia.

“Previously, researchers would usually approach teachers and principals directly without an intermediary to help with the logistics and implementation of their projects,” Newbill said. “This approach often led to teachers and principals feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to integrate research projects into their classrooms. However, we now provide coaching to researchers and vet their ideas to ensure that they are feasible and effective in the classroom.”

Recognizing the specialized expertise of K-12 educators, the center also sees these relationships as a benefit to the Virginia Tech research community.

“It really helps researchers develop their communication skills by learning how to communicate their research to a different audience. This helps them grow as communicators,” said Chelsea Haines, the center’s associate director of Broader Impacts. “They can also use it in grant proposals for broader impact and add to their teaching portfolios.”

A key part of bridging the gap between education levels has been the establishment of the Educator Liaison Network. This group of professionals in both formal and informal education settings helps to initiate, sustain, and document relationships between Virginia Tech and schools and museums while also coordinating field trips and helping facilitate requests for grants, activities, and projects.

The liaisons also have helped establish relationships with partner institutes that are able to withstand individual career changes.

“People change jobs, it’s a human thing to do. But once again, with liaisons in place, the relationships between our partners and the university remain strong despite turnover,” Newbill said.

Megan Atkinson is one of four liaisons the center has in public school systems in the New River Valley. She said one of the most rewarding parts of working with the Center for Educational Networks and Impacts is being able to help overcome some of the barriers people in the region have to higher education.

“When you live in Blacksburg or have regular access to the university campus, you have a very resource-heavy environment with lots of opportunities. But if you drive just 20 minutes away from the town, you will see a very different side of Southwest Virginia,” said Atkinson, the career and technical education director for Pulaski County Public Schools. With the center, "we can create an equitable distribution of the resources here and leave a broader impact on students who haven’t had any exposure to higher education institutions.”

The center’s focus, however, isn’t to necessarily drive younger students to a particular field or higher education, but instead to simply help them see the multiple paths available to them.

"We want students to be able to envision themselves in various career paths and to imagine themselves attending college even if they haven't been introduced to it before. It's not necessary for them to attend college, but it's important for them to have the ability to envision themselves there if they so choose,” Haines said.

Making such experiences available to the region takes a financial commitment to help with everything from transportation to the liaison positions. Currently, the Center for Education Networks and Impacts’ program funding is the result of the combination of budgeting from ICAT, funding from faculty grants, and gifts.

Newbill said the ever-present ebbs and flows of budgetary cycles present challenges to the programs’ long-term sustainability. She is hopeful, however, that might change with the addition of private support.

“There’s a great opportunity here for an individual or a company to step up and really play a huge role in helping secure these opportunities for children throughout this region,” Newbill said.

Learn how you can support this program, today. Email Phyllis Newbill at

Written by  Aanila Kishwar Tarannum

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