Science is all about discovery—the pursuit of knowledge that helps us make sense of our world and the driving force behind innovation. Earlier this year, young learners made their own discoveries by getting hands-on with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Kids’ Tech University returned to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus for its 11th annual program. Hosted by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in partnership with Virginia 4-H, KTU bridges the gap between kids and scientists by showing kids that science is truly all around them.

“Science is fun, and kids can do it. Regardless of who you are, everybody can become a scientist. When we see the kids’ eyes light up with excitement, it makes everything worth it,” said Helena Carvalho, an associate professor in the Department of Basic Science Education at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. This spring, Carvalho celebrated her 10th year with KTU. She first became involved as a speaker in 2011 and continued to foster Carilion’s relationship with KTU over the years, which has been worthwhile for both the kids in the program and Carilion’s medical students as they practice their community engagement skills.

A medical student teaches a KTU participant about peripheral eyesight. The medical student is leaning over a model of the eye, and directing the KTU participant's gaze with her finger. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.
A medical student teaches a KTU participant about peripheral eyesight in the February 14th session. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.

This year’s program originally consisted of four full days of science, but the final session was canceled as part of preventative measures for COVID-19. Nearly 200 students between the ages of nine and 12 participated this year.

The program featured three Virginia Tech professors, who each led interactive morning sessions based on their work. Kids heard about what a real scientist might study, which helped them put names and faces to the profession.

“For the kids and their parents, these events help educate the public on scientific areas in which they may not be too familiar and may help clarify misinformation related to their bodily functions and health. These programs also help bridge the gap between science and the general public,” said Kris Rau, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.  “By sharing our knowledge of anatomy and physiology through interactive demonstrations, our medical students can also have an active role in shaping the future wellbeing of children in our community and stimulating them to be interested in STEM-related fields.”

Rau took to the KTU stage in February to talk about the neurobiology of pain. Kids were enthused to learn about why they feel pain, how the brain controls everything we feel, and how signals travel through the body. “I hope the kids gained some new insight into how their bodies work and how they can keep their nervous system healthy throughout their lives. Hopefully one day I will also see some of those budding scientists in Virginia Tech’s medical school or graduate school, too!” he said.

Kris Rau demonstrates a human-to-human interface device, which allows one person to control the hand of another, as he explained the neural pathways of the body. Rau's hands are facing palms-up as her explains. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.
In February, Kris Rau demonstrated a human-to-human interface device, which allows one person to control the hand of another, as he explained the neural pathways of the body. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.

Following the interactive sessions in the mornings, afternoons were packed with a variety of activities at booths staffed by students, clubs, and faculty from across campus. Excited kids took over the atrium in Goodwin Hall as they jumped from one booth to another to participate in each activity. They experienced how fields like chemistry, biology, physics, computer science, agriculture, and animal science are all around us and—most importantly—how they impact our lives.

For example, many activities focused on health to showcase how kids can take care of themselves. With a grant from the Carilion Educational Fund, KTU organized a variety of health and medicine-themed activities, such as learning how to suture stuffed animals, tasting various fruits and vegetables, and seeing how smoking cigarettes affects our bodies with a set of real swine lungs. Student volunteers from Orion, a science-themed living learning community, and Delta Epsilon Mu, a co-ed professional pre-health fraternity, applied their knowledge of science and medicine to facilitate these activities.

A member of Delta Epsilon Mu, a co-ed professional pre-health fraternity, teaches a KTU participant how to suture a stuffed animal. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.
In February's session, a member of Delta Epsilon Mu, a co-ed professional pre-health fraternity, taught a KTU participant how to suture a stuffed animal. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.

“By engaging kids with science and medicine at a young age, we hope that they become more aware of how their bodies work and what they can do to stay healthy. We hope that by inspiring kids with fun, hands-on activities, they’ll be able to go home and make better decisions regarding their well-being. This will set them up for a better, healthier future” said Shirley Holland, vice president of Planning and Community Development at Carilion Clinic.

Even though this year’s programs were cut short, Kristy Collins, the director of education and outreach at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, is looking forward to 2021.

“Thank you to the amazing VT undergraduate and graduate volunteers, VT faculty, and student clubs for volunteering and spending their Saturday mornings geeking out with others about really cool science. Kids are the future of science. The 2021 program is going to be amazing with new collaborations, different activities and fun experiences. I look forward to seeing you soon— whether it be as a KTU participant or a Virginia Tech undergrad,” Collins said.

Kids’ Tech University will return to Virginia Tech’s campus in 2021, and registration will open in the fall for kids aged nine to 12. With any questions or to get involved, please email Kristy Collins at kdivitto@vt.edu.

 

- Written by Rasha Aridi

 

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