Roanoke Center teams up with area schools to build excitement around STEM
Hands-on sessions teach students of all ages about coding, engineering, circuits, and even space travel.
Concerns were mixed among 150 Roanoke City elementary school students gathered at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center as they pondered making a new home 240 trillion miles from Earth.
Some worried about taking up resources needed by other forms of life, others asked about the possibility of hostile neighbors, and some fretted about what the chickens aboard their spaceship would eat.
The third, fourth, and fifth graders were all participating in the Roanoke Center’s ACE: Association for the Colonization of Exoplanets program, which challenges students to plan the settlement of a rocky, Earth-sized planet in another solar system.
“Students receive specialized mission parameters based on the engineering discipline that inspires them: aerospace, agricultural, biomedical, civil, electrical, or mechanical,” said Ashley Sloan, the center’s lead STEM instructor. “They then use real data that NASA has collected about the exoplanet, TRAPPIST-1e, to identify opportunities and challenges and how they should proceed to colonize this new world.”
ACE is one of several programs offered by the Roanoke Center that provide hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The students are all part of Roanoke City’s PLATO program for gifted students. They grappled with problems such as traveling through space, growing food, fighting disease, and developing clean energy sources while building their own prototypes for devices that would help the fledgling colony survive.
But they don’t have to figure it out alone. They also get advice from professional engineers, such as Daniel Fralin, a civil engineer with a consulting firm in Rocky Mount, Virginia.
“I got to sit down with the students and talk about city planning and providing utilities and resources for this colony they are trying to create,” Fralin said. “Kids know engineers exist, but they don’t really know who they are. Through programs like this, they can see that we’re just like them and that they can be an engineer, too.”
Scott Weimer, executive director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives, said the Roanoke Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, hopes to expand the program to include expertise from Virginia Tech faculty members.
“Educational engagement programs with our local schools are one way that we continue to fulfill the university’s land-grant mission,” Weimer said. “In a few more years, these students will be making plans for their futures, and experiences like this one give them the confidence to pursue STEM careers, such as engineering.”
Caroline Suess, a fourth grade teacher at Highland Park Elementary School, said she was inspired by the creativity baked into the program and the way it was able to spark the students’ imaginations.
“There’s not a lot of time in our lessons for the ‘what ifs,’” she said. “Oftentimes the teacher is looking for the right answer, and students don’t want to respond unless they know they are right. But if we took a little bit of time to add a ‘what if,’ heads that are down on the desk would be suddenly lifted.”
Don Pizzullo, manager of STEM programming at the Roanoke Center, said another advantage of the ACE program is that it can be customized to fit any age group. “By adjusting the complexity of the science and engineering components, this program can truly be engaging for kindergarten students all the way up to 12th graders, in groups large or small,” he said.
Train the trainer
In another STEM program customized for Radford City Schools, meanwhile, high school students became the teachers.
For about 15 teens enrolled in a new information technology program, the activity seemed simple enough: Use an electric circuit, a microcontroller, and five lines of code to make a light blink. But the students needed to learn not only how to do the activity themselves, but also how to guide second graders through the process a few days later.
This “train the trainer” approach taught the older students circuit-building and coding — as well as how to share those skills with a group that wasn’t as experienced.
“From a second grader’s perspective, this was very difficult; for a ninth, 10th, or 11th grader’s perspective, very easy. The major challenge is taking what they find to be very simple and teaching it to somebody that finds it very complex,” said Sam Burton, a leader of the program for Radford High School.
Blenna Patterson, a K-2 STEM specialist at McHarg Elementary School, said the high school students did a great job supporting the second graders.
“Any time students turn around and teach what they have learned, it will improve their competence and confidence in that subject matter. These kinds of fun, engaging experiences make computer science less scary. Hopefully, more of our students will pursue this as a career choice,” she said.
Radford City Schools and the Roanoke Center were connected through the Center for Educational Networks and Impacts (CENI), housed within Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. CENI links community members and Virginia Tech researchers to engage learners at all levels across the commonwealth.
“The CENI network of education liaisons works to connect Virginia Tech and the regional education community — both informal and formal, from museums to school systems,” said Jamie Little, a CENI liaison who is also an education specialist for Radford City Schools.
“The Roanoke Center was so easy to work with and was very accommodating to our needs. They gave us several options to consider and were there to help the students every step of the way,” Little said.
As the center’s customizable STEM programming has grown, so has the footprint of the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center.
Offered free to area school districts through support from Qualcomm and community sponsors, the program has been hosting local sixth graders since 2019 in Roanoke. It follows the university’s first Thinkabit Lab in Falls Church that is guided by the College of Engineering’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity.
The program exposes students to STEM concepts in a space that is part classroom, part lab, and part makerspace. Students learn basic coding to build and control an electrical circuit before using that new knowledge to create an “internet of things” inspired invention that solves a real-world problem.
Since September, Roanoke’s Thinkabit Lab has hosted nearly 400 students. It has added participation from new schools, including Montgomery County’s Shawsville and Auburn middle schools and Floyd County’s Indian Valley and Willis elementary schools. The program also attracts plenty of return customers, such as schools in Rockbridge County, Salem, and Radford.
“These innovative STEM programs unlock a world of possibilities and opportunities for students,” Weimer said. “By providing access to cutting-edge technology, hands-on experimentation, and real-world problem-solving skills, we are inspiring the next generation of innovators and leaders to build a brighter future for their communities and beyond.”