Jacob Grohs believes that teachers and their school systems, universities, and companies are uniquely positioned to come together and create positive engineering experiences for students.

Through the Virginia Tech Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Schools (VTPEERS) initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, Grohs is working with teachers in rural middle schools and engineers in industries in their communities to create engineering learning experiences for students. This year, Grohs received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to take this work further.

Grohs' five-year project will contribute to knowledge on how students develop, maintain, or shift engineering interest pathways as they engage in sustained engineering activities, facilitated through collaborations between their schools and industries in their communities, in the classroom, and beyond. 

The project will introduce young people in rural communities to locally available engineering careers — educational experiences that seem to be limited at this time. It will involve collaborative partnerships between engineers in local manufacturing companies and school teachers, who will come together to co-develop innovative engineering learning experiences for more than 2,500 students from counties in Appalachia.

Jake Grohs VTPEERS
Jacob Grohs and Bedford County middle school science teachers collaborating on hands-on engineering activities, August 2019.

Grohs' research will determine whether and how different groups of rural youth develop and maintain interest in engineering career pathways from middle school through the period after high school graduation, using cluster analyses and qualitative methods. To accomplish this, the project will collaboratively engage with teachers and engineers to facilitate hands-on engineering activities, and have conversations with students to understand the factors that influence their career interests and decisions.

Engineers and formal and informal educators will plan and implement educational innovations that will facilitate opportunities for rural youth to use engineering and computer programming skills throughout their middle and high school years. “This project is about scaffolding opportunities where students explore ways their individual passions might align with engineering work and how those passions are both supported by and contribute to their home communities,” Grohs said.

For Grohs, learning what works well for sustaining interest in engineering careers also means collectively understanding and dismantling systemic barriers to access. He said that for the VTPEERS team, “that effort starts by building long-term relationships with teachers and with regional industry and together investing our time over several years with these youth as they envision their future.”

The NSF CAREER program is considered one of the most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the “potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” as stated in the program’s description from the NSF.

- Written by Michelle Soledad