A national engagement awards panel discussion featuring two winners from Virginia Tech will shine a spotlight on the university’s commitment to building community partnerships and fulfilling its land-grant mission.

After a nationwide selection process, the Engagement Scholarship Consortium honored Virginia Tech for two projects — a Virginia Cooperative Extension effort to address difficulties with access to fresh food in economically distressed communities and a College of Engineering project that adds hands-on learning activities to Appalachian middle school classrooms.

“These awards are a testament to the vital partnerships Virginia Tech is building both across the commonwealth and around the nation to solve critical issues facing our communities,” said Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement with Outreach and International Affairs. “The innovative collaborations behind these projects are helping build healthier neighborhoods and support learning in our schools.”

Since its start in 2017, Virginia Cooperative Extension’s community-based Food for a Long Life project has been an effort in tenacity.

“Whatever challenges, such as a closed site, a change in preschool leadership, transportation issues, and more, the team has not relented,” said Crystal Tyler-Mackey, an Extension specialist who leads the project. “We have continued to focus on what can be done to improve healthy food knowledge, access, and consumption.”

Working with neighborhoods in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio, the project has provided nutrition-education programs to about 630 preschoolers and more than 60 adults.

Tyler-Mackey and her colleagues have collaborated with a Columbus food bank to implement a “food satellite” that delivers monthly orders of meat, dairy, eggs, bread, produce, shelf-stable foods, and special treats for young children. In Virginia, the program prepared snack bags for about 160 children just prior to schools’ winter and spring breaks to help make up for missed meals. They continued those efforts when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“This program reflects how a collaborative, engaged response can make an impact on a critical, complex issue,” Tyler-Mackey said. “While the impact for the community members is the key goal and measure of success, winning the Excellence in Community Partner Engagement Award is a great boost and reminder of the importance of engaging community members in all of the stages of a project.”

For Jacob Grohs and the College of Engineering’s VT PEERS project, winning the Excellence in Faculty Community Engagement Award highlighted the importance of building authentic relationships and collaborating over the long term.

"This recognition leaves us energized and looking forward to continuing to invest in partnerships with schools and teachers to impact the futures of youth in our communities,” Grohs said.

Now in its fourth year, VT PEERS designs, implements, and studies the addition of hands-on engineering activities to classrooms at three Appalachian middle schools. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project involves Virginia Tech faculty and graduate students; industry partners; and school administrators and teachers from Bedford, Giles, and Smyth County schools. It has engaged 1,900 students since 2017.

Along with the winners from Dickinson College and East Carolina University, Tyler-Mackey and Grohs will participate in a virtual discussion focused on sharing major impacts, challenges, best practices, and lessons learned. The free Oct. 15 webinar will be held during the Annual Engagement Scholarship Consortium Conference. Registration is required.

The Engagement Scholarship Consortium is a nationwide group of higher education institutions that work together building strong partnerships between universities and communities to work on today’s most critical problems.

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh