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Kids’ Tech University helps shape the future of science
Marketing and Communications - Spotlight
published by Public Relations   
January 04, 2010
“We have something special here which I would like to see take root across the country.” Reinhard Laubenbacher, Professor and Deputy Director of Education and Outreach at VBI.

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Many experts agree that children need to be introduced early to the excitement of science, technology, engineering and math if the United States is to remain competitive in the global scientific community. Kids’ Tech University (KTU) arose from an idea that the best way to engage children with science is to show them as early as possible how exciting and fun it can really be. KTU provides children between the ages of 9 and 12 semester-long opportunities to attend university lectures, take part in hands-on educational activities on campus, and engage in complementary educational experiences at home.

European pedigree

KTU, which is principally sponsored by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech and the Virginia Cooperative Extension's 4-H Youth Development Program, is the first educational program of its type offered in the United States. Reinhard Laubenbacher, professor and deputy director of education and outreach at VBI, came across the original concept of a children's university in an article published in a German newspaper. Says Laubenbacher, "Hundreds of children have been attending individual lectures on science on the weekend at Universities around Germany, which speaks volumes for the program and the enthusiasm of the kids. I wanted to see if we could build something similar in the United States."

Lecture Hall
Kids' Tech University in session

After talking to the people who started the project, Laubenbacher and his team put in place the infrastructure needed for a first semester of KTU. Kids were enrolled to participate in a semester-long series of activities that began in January 2009. Adds Laubenbacher, "We had a huge response from parents and children interested in the program and quickly realized that we were tapping into a significant educational need." Last semester, KTU students were able to attend lectures in a Virginia Tech lecture hall, have lunch in one of the on-campus dining facilities, and take part in hands-on activities to build on the lecture concepts. A key feature of KTU is that the fun and excitement of the university experience continues after the kids leave campus through an online lab component with activities designed to promote a continued interest in the lecture topics, as well as providing a forum area to promote discussion and teamwork.

Says Cathy Sutphin, Virginia 4-H associate director of youth development at the Virginia Cooperative Extension, "A major program focus of 4-H is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math or STEM. Through hands-on learning, KTU participants apply the ideas that are presented during lectures and explore other avenues. By connecting youth to the university, we increase the chances that they will not only choose a STEM field but that they will also consider attending Virginia Tech."

In the first semester of KTU, students heard from scientists who had engaging stories to tell about their research. Keith Devlin, known as "The Math Guy" on National Public Radio and co-founder and executive director of Stanford's Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, kicked off proceedings on 31 January 2009, answering the question "Why are there animals with spotted bodies and striped tails, but no animal with a striped body and a spotted tail?" In subsequent months, Caitlin Kelleher, assistant professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis and an alumnus of Virginia Tech (Computer Science, 1998) explained why some computer programs can be so frustrating and Louis Guillette, professor and director of the Howard Hughes Group Advantaged Training of Research (G.A.T.O.R.) Program at the University of Florida, described how he wrestles alligators in the swamps of Florida to study the effects of environmental contaminants on wildlife. The first semester of KTU ended with an up-close look at what it would take to live on Mars in a lecture from Phil Christensen, Regents Professor and the Ed and Helen Korrick Professor in the Department of Geological Science at Arizona State University.

Says Laubenbacher: "The first semester of KTU was made possible due to contributions by many volunteers from the Virginia Tech community and beyond. Without their help, we would not have been able to put on an event of this scope and their assistance going forward will be a key part of our success."

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