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VT-STEM helps inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers

Before he took office in January 2009, President Barack Obama’s transition team received a letter from Steven C. Beering, chairman of the National Science Board. In the letter, Beering wrote, “Our national economic prosperity and security require that we remain a world leader in science and technology."
   

Kid’s Tech University, an educational research series for children ages 8 to 12, premiered in 2009. The VT-STEM program attracted hundreds of children to the four days of lectures, hands-on learning activities, and labs presented during the 2009 spring semester. Kid’s Tech University, an educational research series for children ages 8 to 12, premiered in 2009. The VT-STEM program attracted hundreds of children to the four days of lectures, hands-on learning activities, and labs presented during the 2009 spring semester.

Beering continued writing that precollege education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is, “the foundation of that leadership and must be one of our highest priorities as a nation.”

While serving as a U.S. senator in 2008, Obama joined U.S. Rep. Mike Honda in introducing legislation to coordinate the nation’s STEM education initiatives.

In his address in April 2009 to the National Academy of Sciences, Obama announced “a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science. Through this commitment, American students will move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade. For we know that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

While STEM is championed by national science and political leaders, it has become an educational tool at Virginia Tech.

   

Virginia Tech Department of Physics students Justin Waugh (left) and Justin Bangerter demonstrate the effects of cooling materials with liquid nitrogen during the Imagination summer camp hosted annually by the College of Engineering for seventh and eighth graders. Virginia Tech Department of Physics students Justin Waugh (left) and Justin Bangerter demonstrate the effects of cooling materials with liquid nitrogen during the Imagination summer camp hosted annually by the College of Engineering for seventh- and eighth-graders.

Nearly a decade ago, John Dooley, then associate provost for outreach and now vice president of Outreach and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, convened a group of faculty and researchers interested in promoting STEM education. Today, the VT-STEM K-12 Outreach Initiative, administered through the School of Education, encompasses a network of more than 150 university faculty who, with countless undergraduate and graduate students, reach out to schools across Virginia with more than 50 distinct educational programs in the areas of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

“VT-STEM is a collaborative,” said Llyn Sharp, coordinator of Geosciences Outreach in the College of Science. Sharp and Mike Rosenzweig, a research scientist in the Department of Biological Sciences and director of the Science Outreach Program, have served as co-coordinators of VT-STEM for the 2008-09 academic year.

Faculty and students at the university who have developed kindergarten through 12th-grade (K-12) programs in STEM disciplines are invited to join a listserv and participate in monthly meetings managed by Sharp and Rosenzweig. A frequent topic of discussions via e-mail and at meetings involves how and where to engage K-12 teachers and their students.

   

Audrey Zink-Sharp, interim head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Wood Science and Forest Products, helps schoolchildren make a sheet of paper from wood pulp fibers during the Wood Magic Show. Audrey Zink-Sharp, interim head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Wood Science and Forest Products, helps schoolchildren make a sheet of paper from wood pulp fibers during the Wood Magic Show.

“A big part of this collaborative is the university’s land-grant mission, which, of course, connects Virginia Tech to the community,” Sharp said. “The VT-STEM network acts as a pipeline that helps funnel the conversation between the university and public schools. In addition to educating K-12 students, STEM programs help teachers learn to stay current in their fields.”

One reason STEM programs are sought after is the need for teachers and students to master the Standards of Learning (SOLs). “VT-STEM people know the national and state SOLs and most things taught in our programs can be related to the standards,” Sharp said.

Some of the university’s STEM programs have been drawing K-12 fans for many years, including the annual Wood Magic Show, presented by the College of Natural Resources Department of Wood Science and Forest Products; the College of Engineering’s Imagination and C-Tech2 summer camps; the Physics Outreach Program; the 4-H State Congress; the Museum of Geosciences; and the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Biotech-in-a-Box program.

   

Each November, the Virginia Tech Southwest Center partners with the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, businesses in Virginia and Tennessee, and faculty from Virginia Tech and Radford University to present a full-day STEM conference for 600 to 800 sixth-grade girls from area schools. Each November, the Virginia Tech Southwest Center partners with the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, businesses in Virginia and Tennessee, and faculty from Virginia Tech and Radford University to present a full-day STEM conference for 600 to 800 sixth-grade girls from area schools.

Successful VT-STEM programs aren’t limited to the Blacksburg campus. The Virginia Tech Southwest Center in Abingdon, Va., for example, has become a vital regional STEM education source.

“We adopted STEM as our signature program about four years ago,” said Penny McCallum, the southwest center’s director. For three years, the center has hosted the Summer STEM Institute, a three-day program for pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers who want to motivate students to consider careers in STEM disciplines. Workshop topics for the 2009 institute range from using model rockets in the classroom to conducting hands-on soil science experiments.

The Virginia Tech Southwest Center also collaborates on an annual STEM conference for the region’s sixth-grade girls and hosts several one-day workshops for teachers throughout the year.

“Teachers are hungry for professional development programs that provide new content information and new methods and strategies for teaching STEM subjects,” McCallum said. “Many of them have not taken a curriculum-specific class since receiving their college degrees. The teachers know what they need, and we try to deliver that.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Liz Crumbley at (540) 231-1419.

STEM programs at Virginia Tech

For a national perspective, visit the STEM Education Coalition.

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