Inspiring the next generation of scientists and STEM leaders
The halls were alive with the sound of students.
That was music to the ears of Kristy Collins, director of education and outreach for the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and director of Kids' Tech University.
Now in its 14th year, this spring, students were able to once again experience Kids' Tech University in person after two years of the program being moved to a virtual-only experience as a result of the pandemic.
Co-sponsored by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Virginia 4-H, one Saturday each month from January through April, Steger Hall was transformed into a wonderland of presentations and interactive activities. Ranging from hip hop arts and rocketry to the good, bad, and ugly of mosquitos, students ages 9–12 were able to see science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through several lenses.
"Kids' Tech University is a fun, easy to understand, engaging educational experience for our kids," said John Weatherford, a Virginia Tech alumnus whose four kids have attended the program.
"They enjoy the topics, the way the professors make them feel special and smart, and most of all the hands-on opportunities in the afternoons. Seeing their excitement over something educational makes you feel great as a parent."
More than 50 groups, including student clubs and living-learning communities, along with faculty and students, were invited each month to share and facilitate activities.
The 2023 KTU provided both in-person and virtual participation for the first time since 2019, allowing close to 190 students from across the Commonwealth, other states, and even internationally, to participate.
This year also set the stage for a partnership with the College Access Collaborative to bring select middle school students to campus to attend Kids' Tech University at no charge. New funding from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Early College Exposure: Getting Middle School Students onto College Campuses grant supported this initiative.
Through the grant, 22 students and 11 parents and chaperones were able to participate in the April session.
"My hope is that regardless of continued grant funding after this pilot year, that College Access Collaborative will be able to continue to offer this opportunity to middle school students," said College Access Collaborative Director Mary Grace Campos.
"We know that the path to college begins well before high school and exposure at the middle school level via Kids’ Tech University is a fantastic way to forge that path for youth."
Kids' Tech University is just one example of the variety of programs the Institute has added to its education and outreach portfolio since 2008.
Continuing the momentum of Kids' Tech University, two summer 4-H STEM camps are held on campus at Virginia Tech, featuring a weeklong session in June and July. Campers are able to explore a variety of topics, including geology, microscopy, horticulture and a tour of the Hahn Horticulture Garden, computer coding, and engineering
“Kids being exposed to STEM for the first time just need a few things to really thrive,” said Thomas Weeks, director of technology futures and community advocacy for the Division of Information Technology. “They need a quality STEM event, knowledgeable volunteers, and caring encouragement.”
The Division of Information Technology, which has provided instruction and volunteer support for several of the Institute’s outreach programs over the years, leads half-day coding workshops for the 4-H STEM camps. During each workshop, kids build a collision-bot — also known as "laser bot" — using a foam board and Arduino-based software, an open-source electronic prototyping platform that enables users to create interactive electronic objects.
Another programming highlight is the partnership with An Achievable Dream Academy. 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 year's program is being held this week on the Virginia Tech campus. "Dreamers" will spend a full day in Roanoke at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, as well as visit the Virginia Tech Drone Park, Virginia Cyber Range, and interacting with the True School Studios, a culturally sustaining experiential learning lab supported by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. The Division of Information Technology also leads similar coding workshops during this event.
“This is a fantastic program because it assures these kids that Virginia Tech is a choice for them,” said Collins. “Through this experience, kids get to explore other parts of Virginia and learn important life skills, such as time management and presenting.”
The program was was originally funded through Net.Science, a National Science Foundation grant and self-sustaining cyber infrastructure that serves as a community resource for network science. Collins is hopeful the program will receive new funding for 2024, citing it as an opportunity for faculty members to demonstrate their role in programs with broad impacts.
Another result of the program is that Collins offers personal and professional support to An Achievable Dream Academy alumni who attend Virginia Tech through work study and job recommendations.
Alonda Johnson, a recent graduate of the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s packaging systems and design program, was a student at An Achievable Dream Academy from 2010 until 2018.
“An Achievable Dream Academy 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," said Johnson.
On the horizon
Collins is excited to introduce a Spanish-based Kids' Tech University for the fall semester to provide broader accessibility to the Spanish-speaking community. There was a special pilot session offered in April, where Graduate School Diversity Scholars provided real-time English-to-Spanish translation of the program.
“We want to make sure families with lingual barriers are not left out of this amazing program that allows the parent and child to engage in STEM together, fortifying their mutual investment in the child’s future career in STEM,” said Clayton Markham, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering who worked with fellow scholars Fiorella Mazzini Masias and Gabriel Maldonado Rivera.
FLSI Executive Director Robin McCarley echoes the accolades for these diverse outreach programs. “The energy of those involved at Virginia Tech and beyond in developing and making fruitful these crucial initiatives is surpassed only by that of the thousands of K–12 students who have participated over the past decade and a half. I look forward to seeing the older versions of some of the students’ faces in the future, whether it be at Virginia Tech or STEM venues, to see the impact of these transformative outreach programs.”