Virginia Tech initiative with Qualcomm to expose students to STEM

The Washington Post

When Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands began his tenure two years ago, he quickly observed that nothing about the state school was “broken” or needed immediate attention.

But he saw an opportunity to consider the university’s future and foster programs that would better prepare students for the careers of the future.

“The jobs that are going to be growing is the intersection of social science and technology,” Sands said in an interview. “But the thing about technology is it changes rapidly.”

Sands wants Virginia Tech to become more nimble to adapt to the needs of the workforce. And the first step, he said, is exposing students as young as middle schoolers to the wonders of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

So began a new partnership between Virginia Tech and the computer chip manufacturer Qualcomm that has resulted in a new Thinkabit lab, a STEM-focused learning classroom on the university’s Northern Virginia campus in Falls Church.

At the opening ceremony Thursday night, Sands told representatives from the Obama administration and the National Science Foundation that in the future every degree from Virginia Tech will involve STEM “one way or another.”

Qualcomm’s first Thinkabit lab opened in San Diego a year and a half ago and the program has served 8,000 students across four other locations. The Virginia Tech Thinkabit lab is the first outside California.

The lab is open to community groups such as Girl Scout troops and all school districts in the Washington area at no cost. The six-hour program begins with students learning about career opportunities in technology and beyond. Before long, the children are hooking up a power supply to an Arduino circuit board that can be set up to spin a motor or light up an LED bulb. A day at the Thinkabit lab ends with students building a “robot” and presenting their invention to the rest of the class.

“The important thing for students coming out here is that students learn there is a place for them in the world,” said Susie Armstrong, senior vice president of engineering at Qualcomm. “How can a child aspire to a career they don’t know exists?”

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Labor DepartmentDeputy Secretary Chris Lu said that he visited a Thinkabit lab in San Diego and was immediately sold.

Lu said that programs such as the Thinkabit lab will build a workforce that will allow U.S. companies to compete globally.

Sands said he wants to encourage Virginia Tech students to collaborate across disciplines. Sands said the university’s budget process has been restructured to allow departments to dissolve the burden of expenses when students want to participate in projects together.

“We want every student to have that experience working in large teams and solving complex problems,” Sands said.

Sands said that one project involves the Adaptive Brain, a sprawling effort to better understand the science behind the vital human organ that will bring together students from computer science and psychology.

Not all cutting-edge problems are created equal. Virginia Tech recently announced that students will participate in a test involving state-of-the-art technology. The experiment? Delivering Chipotle burritos by drone.

The test flights, part of a project by Google parent company Alphabet, will begin this month on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg.

By T. Rees Shapiro