Robots, Arduinos and Careers: Students explore STEM in new Thinkabit Lab

Collegiate Times

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a big buzzword in education. It is also the focus of a new collaboration between Virginia Tech and the chipset manufacturer Qualcomm.

On Sept. 8, Qualcomm’s first Thinkabit Lab on the East Coast opened on the campus of Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, Virginia. The lab offers students from local schools and  underrepresented minorities the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with STEM careers and experience what it is like to be an engineer. At the same time, the lab helps train teachers and sponsors  research into STEM education.

The lab gives students a wide degree of latitude to discover and explore STEM careers and ideas during a visit. Students even have the opportunity to build their own creations using materials provided by  the lab, including toys and Arduino micro-controllers.

 “Most students can’t resist cutting the head off a stuffed animal, pulling out the insides and inserting the micro-controller or servo motors inside,” said Jim Egenrieder, director of the lab.

However, the lab is about more than just having fun. The collaboration between Virginia Tech and Qualcomm aims to create the next generation of innovators.

“We know that STEM skills can enhance every student’s future, regardless of (his or her) field of study, and we need to prepare both students and teachers to address the complex challenges of tomorrow,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands in a press release. “The Thinkabit collaboration with Qualcomm will allow us to join complementary strengths and work synergistically to create opportunities and lower barriers.”

The lab is the second Thinkabit Lab for Qualcomm. Another facility opened in 2014 in the company’s San Diego, California, headquarters. That facility has served over 8,000 students and been replicated by schools and libraries in California.

“Inspiring and motivating local youth to excel in STEM subjects is vital to building the nation’s brightest workforce right here in San Diego,” said Kevin Faulconer, mayor of San Diego, in a testimonial on the Thinkabit Lab website. “The Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab serves as a model for the rest of the country by exposing more kids to STEM career paths, encouraging them to study STEM and preparing them for new opportunities in the 21st Century.”

Qualcomm chose Virginia Tech for its first university partnership because of the university’s already-existing contacts in the northern Virginia school systems. The 2,600-square-foot facility is located in a building used by both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, easily accessible by public transit.

“The work that Qualcomm and Virginia Tech are doing at this new Thinkabit Lab is remarkable,” said Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf, who received a B.S. in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech, in a press release. “Beyond being a space to inspire the next generation of inventors, it will allow ... us to leverage the expertise of both organizations, and through research and practical application, we will bring new advancements to STEM education at all levels.”

Local educators and community groups involved with STEM education can schedule a visit for students at the center using an online form. Once the students arrive, they embark on a four-hour tour through a lab that offers everything from career training to robots.

The students' first stop is the World of Work Lab. In that space, students learn more about STEM careers: what is involved, the education and training required, predicted incomes, and projected career growth. The lab works with students to identify careers interesting to them and teaches them how to talk about the career with parents and others.

Students also get cards to go along with their I.D. badges that they carry with them throughout the lab with information about the particular careers they are interested in.

After the World of Work Lab, students are taken to the Robo-Crafting Lab, where they are given the opportunity to learn about STEM careers through play. Students are given some elementary instruction in electrical circuitry and learn how to program microcontrollers. Then, they are given free range to build something of their own creation.

“We let them loose on a big colorful wall filled with crafts and toys and encourage them in teams of two to build a unique, robotic craft driven by an Arduino micro-controller,” Egenrieder said. “They range from fun to funny, occasionally practical and, often, quite clever.”

At the end of the session, students share their inventions with the group. Egenrieder says that this process will help create the next generation of professionals, who will need a wide array of skill sets to succeed in the changing global job market.

“Recognizing that most people who visit our lab may still be working full-time in 2070, you can imagine that the workplace and workplace technology will be very different than it is now,” Egenrieder said. “We want to train these young people to be flexible, adaptable and curious.”

The Thinkabit Lab has benefits beyond helping students discover STEM careers. The lab also provides teachers and administrators with resources to teach about STEM and offers educator tours to teach adults about the lab’s ideas. Faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students are encouraged to use the lab for research into education. Some faculty have already begun developing projects based on access to STEM through the lab.

The lab is located at 7054 Haycock Rd. in Falls Church. It is open Tuesday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and by appointment Monday, Friday and Saturday. The lab encourages those who are interested in a class visit or educator tour to fill out a request form at thinkabitlab.com/virginiatech.

By Matt Jones