For Giving Day 2023, with the help of healthy competition, 15 departments and units within the College of Engineering were vying to beat their all-time best Giving Day participation for the chance to win an unprecedented $50,000 cash prize.

Electrical engineering alumna Letitia "Tish" Long '82 and her husband, John Skibinski, sponsored the college-level challenge among departments to build excitement and amplify the impact of engineering donors for the special day of giving. Long and Skibinski urged engineering alumni and friends to support students throughout the 24 hours of giving. They invited engineering units to compete to beat their best Giving Day donor totals by putting an extra $50,000 up for grabs, more than doubling last year’s stakes.

The cash bonus was to be split by the top three departments from the college’s Giving Day leaderboard. With the competition at play, the college raised over $900,000 from the generosity of more than 1,900 donors throughout Giving Day 2023. 

Materials science and engineering won the top prize of $25,000, followed by Myers-Lawson School of Construction bringing home $15,000, and civil and environmental engineering winning $10,000. 

With the help of their challenge funds, the top three departments distributed prize winnings to support students via professional development opportunities, service learning trips abroad, and new facilities that encourage a collaborative environment — all of which would not be possible without the increased participation of alumni and friends of the departments. 

“It was rewarding to see how the funds were used to support student development, whether through out-of-classroom experiences or improved facilities here on campus, all of which make the Virginia Tech experience special,” said Long. “The 24 hours of giving exemplify how alumni philanthropy can influence the next generation of Hokie engineers to use their education and tackle the world’s most pressing, complex problems.” 

Supporting student groups

Many student groups within the College of Engineering, such as the Materials Engineering Professional Society (MEPS), are funded by their correlating departments. With the $25,000 of Giving Day challenge funds that the Department of Materials Science and Engineering won last year, it was able to better support MEPS by sending students to conferences and providing an improved budget for outreach events.

A group of Virginia Tech students at the Materials Science and Technology conference in Ohio.
A group of Virginia Tech students at the Materials Science and Technology Conference in Ohio. Photo courtesy of Joanna Aguilar.

As a professional development opportunity, MEPS sends students to materials science and engineering-related conferences, such as the Materials Science and Technology Conference, a technical meeting and exhibition series that highlights the latest research advancements in the field. In previous years, the group could only afford to take 10 students. However, thanks to funds raised with Long and Skibinski’s challenge, this year they were able to double the number of students who attended.

“After attending Materials Science and Technology, we are excited about the other conferences scheduled for later in the school year and anticipate strong interest and attendance,” said Joanna Aguilar, a materials science and engineering senior as well as the outreach chair for MEPS.

A student from the Materials Engineering Professional Society talks to young girls about STEM at an event.
A Materials Engineering Professional Society student talks with young girls about STEM at an event. Photo courtesy of Joanna Aguilar.

In the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), the student group also used the funds to expand its outreach to K-12 students across Virginia. To spark more interest in STEM-related careers, MEPS is now able to collaborate with the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Alexandria in addition to attending local events in Pulaski and Roanoke. 

In October, MEPS connected with 1,300 students at the Roanoke Higher Education Center for the fourth annual Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math Day. This event provides an opportunity for students from across the Roanoke Valley to engage with exhibitors, experts, and emerging technologies. The Virginia Tech group demoed competition pieces from Domesday and Ceramic Disk Competitions, along with a cardboard-metal composite. The geodesic dome, which has won competitions such the ASM Geodesic Dome Design Competition and even broke the hydraulic press for testing, is tested for how much load it can withstand without fracturing. The group’s ceramic disk has set a record of being thrown 10 meters in competition. The cardboard-metal composite shows how materials have their own properties, but once combined, will create a new material with very novel uses as it turns into a lightweight, yet immensely strong material.

“These competition pieces are great stepping stones for understanding materials science and learning how the material design process operates,” said Aguilar.

Making an impact in Costa Rica

With the participation of donors during Giving Day helping the Myers-Lawson School of Construction win an additional $15,000, the school was able to send seven students to Guayabo in the Santa Cruz District of Costa Rica. The funding helped to purchase materials to rebuild a roof and kitchen walls at a community center. The 10-day trip allowed construction engineering and management, civil and environmental engineering, and mechanical engineering students to leave a tangible impact.

The community center in Guayabo, originally built in 1995, with the security fence and other renovations from Virginia Tech engineering students.
The community center in Guayabo, originally built in 1995, with the security fence and other renovations from Virginia Tech engineering students. Photo by Ashley Williamson for Virginia Tech.

Within three months of winning the challenge funds, the students arrived in Costa Rica and broke into two groups to focus on various aspects of the project. Throughout the trip, the construction crew made significant progress, tearing down the old roof and walls, securing new railings, digging for the gate post foundations, and placing concrete. With each step came a learning opportunity, at times even a chance to try out new equipment while angle grinding and welding. Construction engineering and management Professor of Practice at the Myers-Lawson School of Construction Charles Smith was alongside the students throughout the whole process.

“This class is intended to not only get students outside of the classroom but to put them into an entirely different environment,” said Smith. “We're trying to embed them in the reality of the professional world while they're still students.”

Virginia Tech students, their professor, and Costa Rican contractors hold a metal beam they signed as part of their service learning project in Costa Rica.
Virginia Tech students, their professor Charles Smith, and Costa Rican contractors hold a metal beam they signed as part of their service learning project in Costa Rica. Photo by Ashley Williamson for Virginia Tech.

In less than two weeks, the group of students was able to work with a local contractor to successfully install a gate for added security; build a new roof, kitchen walls, and electrical units; and begin working on replacing floorboards in another part of the community building. To celebrate the completion of the service learning project, the team signed the metal beam that supports the new roof with the Virginia Tech logo at its focal point. 

Changing the landscape of learning

The Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) used part of its $10,000 challenge funds to upgrade the outdated computer workstations, seating, audiovisual (AV), and instructional equipment of its computer lab in Patton Hall. This renovation has helped facilitate the delivery of the capstone design classes along with other courses that are required for the department's accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which accredits post-secondary education programs in engineering, engineering technology, computing, and applied and natural sciences.

The original CEE computer lab.
The original civil and environmental engineering computer lab. Photos by Mark Widdowson for Virginia Tech.
The updated CEE computer lab space.
The updated civil and environmental engineering computer lab space. Photos by Mark Widdowson for Virginia Tech.

Assistant Professor of Practice Mike Biscotte, who teaches estimating, production, and cost engineering in the CEE computer lab, said, “The update of this space indicates that the CEE department is committed to being flexible and current with respect to the delivery of course content and modern academic environments.”

The original computer lab was initially commissioned in 2000 and has since been home to several fundamental engineering courses that are not easily taught in general academic settings. The rows of fixed seating and desktop computers facing one wall of limited AV equipment have been replaced to support maximum flexibility and blended learning opportunities. The new design was modeled after a research grant classroom in Cheatham Hall that has provided improvement in student engagement and attention.

“The flexibility of the furniture, along with the addition of several display screens, allows for the ability to deliver lectures in more interactive ways,” said Biscotte. “The updated space also promotes a much more collaborative environment for student discussions and problem-solving.”

Setting the stage for this year’s competition

Young Ho ‘87 and Justin Chang ‘17 smile with the class of 2017 composite.
(From left) Young Ho ‘87 and Justin Chang ‘17 smile with the class of 2017 composite. Photo by Courtney Sakry for Virginia Tech.

This year, Young Ho Chang '87 and Justin Chang '17, a father-son duo, are challenging the College of Engineering and its departments to beat their best participation during the 24 hours of giving on Feb. 21-22 from noon to noon ET. They have matched the stakes at play set by Long and Sibinski with an additional $50,000 in challenge funds. The Changs' generous invitation to help drive the competitive spirit and break participation records for the college only improves the experiences of our Hokie engineers.

“I was happy to inspire last year’s departmental challenge and glad to see the tradition carried forward,” said Long. “As alumni, we have a responsibility to leverage our resources in a way that inspires other alumni to give generously in the name of students. A little healthy competition can go a long way when the impact is so big.”

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