The National Resource Center for First-Year Experiences and Students in Transition recently honored Lori Blanc of the Virginia Tech College of Science with its 2017-2018 Excellence in Teaching First-Year Seminars award.

Blanc is an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Biological Sciences and director of the Da Vinci Living Learning Community, which serves undergraduates in biological and life sciences.

Blanc said she accepted the award on behalf of a collaborative team effort involving her colleague, Nikki Lewis, and undergraduate student leaders of the living-learning community. Lewis is a post-doctoral Fellow with the Virginia Tech Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs and director of the Curie Living Learning Community, which houses quantitative and physical science students.

Lewis attended the Feb. 13 awards ceremony with Blanc.

The Living Learning Communities are named for Leonardo Da Vinci and Marie Curie. Da Vinci was originally founded by students in 1999 as the Biological and Life Sciences Community, and the Curie LLC was established in 2012 through the Increasing STEM Graduates in the Physical and Quantitative Sciences STEP grant funded by the National Science Foundation. In a mission to make the two groups a more holistic academic experience, the communities informally combined to form “CurVinci” in 2013.

Combined, CurVinci bridges the gap between academic and student affairs, allowing science students to live in Lee Hall along with Virginia Tech College of Engineering students, and participate in interdisciplinary collaborations. The two programs are part of the broader inVenTs STEM community, an effort shared between the colleges of Science and Engineering. In the inVenTs lab at Lee Hall, students take part in an in-residence design studio stocked with such tools as a 3-D scanner, 3-D printer, laser cutter, microscopes and design software, with graduate students provide undergraduates with equipment training.

Students join CurVinci as first-year students and, in subsequent years, serve in increasing levels of community-based leadership through a peer-to-peer mentoring model. CurVinci integrates six high-impact practices, creating a culture of experiential learning through a “hands-on, minds-on” approach: Undergraduate Research, Common Intellectual Experience, Collaborative Projects, Learning Community, Community-based Service Learning and, a First-Year Experience program.

“Students are the driving force behind our living-learning communities. Indeed, the work that we do in CurVinci is a multigenerational, collaborative effort in the true sense of the word,” Blanc wrote in her nomination letter to the Center. “Our living-learning communities are beautifully positioned to produce the very type of learners that faculty want in their research labs and classrooms. If we want students to become lifelong learners, we must bring the ‘life’ part of the equation into their educational experience.”

This is the first time a Virginia Tech faculty member has been honored with the award, said Jennifer Helms Culhane, director of First-Year Academic Initiatives in the Office of First Year Experiences.

“Lori and Nikki promote a sense of community through personal and professional interests of the diverse student cohort,” said Culhane. “Additionally, they immerse students in an educational environment that supports innovation, ideation, and collaboration. This support enhances the way in which the living learning community members work together to solve problems that impact their local community.”

According to the Center’s website, the award recognizes instructors who have achieved great success in teaching first-year seminars and who inspires student learning, development, and success. Given since 2010, it is given in partnership with McGraw-Hill Higher Education. The Curi and Da Vinci First Year Experience programs will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, published by McGraw-Hill.

Also honored from Virginia Tech was Herbert “Bruce” Bruce, an associate director of the University Academic Advising Center, was named a 2017 national outstanding first-year student advocate.

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