Raffaella De Vita, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, and Alexander Leonessa, associate professor of mechanical engineering; both in the College of Engineering, have received the university’s 2017 Alumni Award for Outreach Excellence.

With support from the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, the Alumni Award for Outreach Excellence is presented annually to recognize outstanding contributions by Virginia Tech faculty members who have extended the university’s outreach mission throughout the commonwealth, the nation, and the world. Recipients are nominated by their peers, receive a $2,000 cash prize, and are inducted into the university’s Academy of Outreach Excellence.

Since its implementation, STEMABILITY has provided students with disabilities the opportunity to be immersed in meaningful education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The “STEM” in STEMABILITY, however, also stands for Serve, Train, Empower, and Mentor. Since taking on leadership roles in the program, De Vita and Leonessa have helped many students transition from high school to college while also stoking their interest in STEM careers.

As organizers and conductors of STEMABILITY, De Vita and Leonessa developed innovative techniques to enhance learning through interesting topics, such as “how cats drink.” In addition, parents of students can attend sessions on the Americans with Disabilities Act, financial aid, and assistive technology, as well as interact with disability service coordinators from several institutions.

“There was never a doubt that both Alex and Rafaella were very experienced, not only in their academic fields, but also in dealing with students. They found creative and innovative ways to let the students get to experience STEMABILITY while simultaneously letting us parents learn more about Virginia Tech. Their past commitment to the program, the growth of the camp over the years, and their continued desire to have the camp grow even more will help meet the needs of a growing special needs community that wants to go further in life than they ever imagined possible,” Michael Bandy, parent of a STEMABILITY participant, wrote in a letter of nomination.

De Vita is a core faculty member of the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute who in 2015 won the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering Editor’s Choice paper. Leonessa served as a program director for the National Science Foundation, where he supervised the general and age-related disability engineering program. He received the National Science Foundation Career award in 2011.

The National Science Foundation has provided funding for STEMABILITY.