Community partnership gives elementary school students a glimpse into the world of engineering

Through the Engineering in Vision program, the VCU College of Engineering is connecting virtually with fourth- and fifth-graders and showcasing different labs in the college.

A person holds a digital tablet as another person assists.
From left: Charles Cartin, an associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering and director of makerspaces at VCU Engineering, and lab technician Adam Hamel give a virtual tour of VCU's Maker Garage in November 2019. On the other end of Cartin's tablet screen are students in the Distance Learning Lab at John B. Cary Elementary School. (Keara Chambers, VCU College of Engineering)

Fifth-grader Khiarae Fuller already knows she wants to get a degree in engineering thanks to her participation in the Engineering in Vision program, a partnership of VCU’s College of Engineering, the Kiwanis Club of Richmond and John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond. 

Khiarae recently won the grand prize and $2,000 in a central Virginia contest for her essay about applying to VCU Engineering and learning how to “design bionic devices for people who are physically disabled, and help them become more independent,” she wrote in her essay.

“Khiarae explained how this partnership is making her dreams come true,” said Michael Powell, principal of John B. Cary Elementary. “She could envision herself sitting in VCU’s Engineering program through the connections we were making with VCU.”

The Engineering in Vision program at Cary Elementary has been in place for the past two years. Through the program, VCU Engineering connects virtually with fourth- and fifth-graders once a month, showcasing different labs in the college. It is a way to introduce students to STEM education at a young age.

“Professors and grad students give a virtual lab tour to show what is going on before taking questions,” said Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, director of government and community outreach in the College of Engineering. “We started with a general innovation lab and then moved into different worlds like biomedical and chemical engineering.”

VCU Engineering is able to reach students more often through videoconferencing. “Field trips are limited for most schools,” Stanley-Shanks said. “This allows the students to virtually visit campus regularly and to sometimes see spaces that they would not normally be able to see even on an in-person field trip.” 

Students seated in a classroom.
Students in the Distance Learning Lab at John B. Cary Elementary School in November 2019. (Rebecca Jones, VCU College of Engineering)

Partnering for the future 

Before the pandemic, Cary Elementary students gathered for these tours in the school’s Kiwanis Distance Learning Laboratory, which was designed by VCU Engineering and is funded by the Kiwanis Club of Richmond. The College of Engineering is going to begin recording future lab tours so students who are learning from home will still be able to enjoy the experience, Stanley-Shanks said.

The Kiwanis Club was already partnering with Cary Elementary on other initiatives that include reading to and tutoring students. The club also works with Carver Elementary, Westover Hills Elementary and Albert Hill Middle School. 

“The principal of Cary has a passionate mission for all Cary students to be college and career ready; that STEM be emphasized,” said Peter Wyeth, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Richmond and a retired vice president of advancement at VCU. “We suggested he visit the engineering school at VCU.”

Kiwanis Club member John Mahone, who coordinates the club’s relationship with Cary, credits Wyeth with helping form and nourish the VCU, Cary and Kiwanis partnership. “Without Peter’s leadership, this partnership would likely never have gotten off the ground,” he said.

Mahone believes the remote learning opportunities now available to Cary students will become “increasingly important in the coming year, as we collectively reimagine primary education in a socially distant and safe environment,” he said.

“Equally important, I am very excited about the opportunities to both showcase and celebrate success of this partnership to the entire Richmond Public Schools and metropolitan community.”

Students and instructors in a classroom participate in a video conference session.
Students in the Distance Learning Lab at Cary Elementary. On screen is Kiara Corbin, a junior mechanical engineering student who works in VCU Engineering's Maker Garage. (Rebecca Jones, VCU College of Engineering)

Making a difference

Stanley-Shanks, who was honored as Cary Elementary Volunteer of the Year in 2019, will be expanding the Engineering in Vision program in the coming year to include elementary schools across central Virginia and middle schools in the Richmond region. 

Powell, the Cary Elementary principal, likes the fact that students are interacting with experts.

“It makes math and science meaningful for them,” he said. “When we look at the challenges we see in today’s society, children are able to learn that math and science are important.”

The school serves as a model for using a STEM-based approach to learning, Powell said.

“That is part of the reason our school has made full accreditation for the last three years, because we are taking innovative approaches to students learning,” Powell said. “These are students that come from our community and represent the city of Richmond. The work they have been engaged in aligns with Virginia Department of Education standards and students are meeting those standards with a high level of proficiency.”

Powell knows the steps the school is taking are making a difference for students. Fourth- and fifth-grade students at Cary were able to attend VCU’s Capstone Design Expo in 2018 and 2019, where graduating students from the College of Engineering present their senior projects. That visit helped further spark their interest. 

“We are seeing an increased level of academic achievement,” Powell said. “When children can see and feel they are part of crafting their next step, there is nothing that can stand in their way.”

A person holding a digital tablet gives a tour of a facility.
Cartin gives a virtual tour of the Maker Garage. (Keara Chambers, VCU College of Engineering)

Growing STEM education

Khiarae, whose award-winning essay focused on designing bionic devices, has long been interested in STEM. Her father first realized his daughter’s affinity for science and other related studies when she was in the second grade, and he believes she will fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer. 

“She has a compassion for people,” he said. “I think she will develop something that is a common need for people or animals.”

Kiwanis Club members Wyeth and Mahone are bullish on the future of the Engineering in Vision program. Wyeth eventually wants students to learn elementary coding as well as the basic elements of coding.

“We are interested in that because this is a way to prepare a workforce for the future,” he said.

Mahone hopes the lessons learned from establishing the process for the distance-learning lab can be replicated elsewhere. 

“That helps us make the technology and educational opportunities available to children in other schools as well,” he said.

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