In 2019, the Biocomplexity Institute will celebrate a very special anniversary—the tenth year of its lauded Kids’ Tech University (KTU). Founded by former faculty member Reinhard Laubenbaucher and continued by Kristy Collins, the program is run much like European science education programs with hands-on components and lectures from scientists that answer “why” questions. Originally designed to be a small outreach program, KTU has grown to hosting 450 kids per session and has expanded to two states and multiple universities and science museums.

“KTU is a success not only because of the Biocomplexity Institute’s support, but also because of the collaboration of many organizations,” said Collins, the institute’s director of education and outreach. “The Virginia 4-H program, service learning students, the Math Emporiums, outreach contacts from various departments, and Virginia Tech faculty—all have helped make KTU what it is today.”

Experiential learning is at the core of the KTU program. By hearing experts in the field and doing activities that foster deep learning, students are well-prepared for STEM careers. Many of the students who have attended KTU for many years have said it was invaluable in stimulating their interest in science and helped steer them toward a STEM education.

Karli Foster, a former KTU participant who is now a freshman at Virginia Tech, said, "Participating in KTU allowed me to experience things such as making butter, trying on an astronaut suit, putting my entire arm in a cow's stomach, learning about genetic mutations and experimenting with coding. I would not have had these opportunities at an early age were it not for the opportunity to attend KTU. The experiences I had at KTU definitely fostered my curiosity and encouraged me to take an interest in the world around me."

KTU also has great benefits for faculty members. Many, like Associate Professor of Entomology Igor Sharakov, have included KTU in the outreach portion of their grant proposals with great success. Some of these grants, such as those funded through the Broader Impacts section of National Science Foundation proposals, have made possible exhibits at the hands-on event or provided need-based scholarships.

"We hosted a hands-on exhibit at Kids’ Tech University (KTU) in spring 2018, as a part of the Broader Impact activities for my NSF grant,” said Sharakov. “Students were shown how to assemble fruit fly and mosquito polytene model ‘chromosomes,’ into a reasonable ‘nucleus’ in a way that would test whether they understood the basic ideas of the research. Twenty-six children visited our booth and spent seven minutes on average learning about our research."

“We've built a program that has proven success. I would like to see more Virginia Tech faculty take advantage of the program and include it in their grants to expand their outreach agenda,” said Collins. 

Registration for next year’s program is now open and will continue until the program cap of 450 children is met. Register at http://kidstechuniversity.vbi.vt.edu/county-registration. Programs in 2019 will include exciting lectures about medical mysteries and today’s most challenging issues, from how we recover after injury to how to deal with rising sea levels. Come celebrate ten years of scientific learning with us!

Published by Tiffany Trent, October 23, 2018