Fourth-graders learn hands-on technology at Virginia Tech

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If you know what arduinos, servos and breadboards are, you are as smart as the fourth-graders at St. Theresa in Ashburn. Twenty-nine students spent the day Nov. 30 at the Thinkabit Lab on the campus of Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church.

The lab, led by Tech’s Department of engineering education and school of education, is based on coursework by Qualcomm, the maker of semiconductors in San Diego. Qualcomm opened the first lab two years ago in San Francisco and it has helped more than 8,000 students and educators to bridge the gap between what is taught in schools and the STEM skills required in the workplace. The Tech lab opened in September.

“Virginia Tech was actively looking for outreach programs they could participate in and they found the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab in San Diego,” said Barry Potter, lab manager at Tech. “There are 10 school districts in the area and we target those under-recognized populations like minorities and females in middle and elementary schools.”

First, the students were introduced to possible career choices that utilize STEM skills. They were asked to write a list of their skills, interests and values.

Students then moved to the lab where they worked with arduinos, servos and breadboards, items used to build embedded computer systems. The students programmed the boards to make an LED light blink on and off, even after the boards were disconnected.

The students enjoyed the assignment.

“I think it’s just really cool that circuits can operate on their own once they’re programmed,” said fourth-grader Dante Massarini. When asked why it’s important to learn this type of work, Massarini said it would be important if he decides to be an engineer.

Potter said research shows the earlier students are exposed to these kinds of things, especially in the context of engineering and design, the more likely they are to enter a STEM field.

“We don’t want them to go into high school and say, ‘engineering, that sounds tough,’” said Potter. “In high school they don’t get a lot of exposure to problem-solving. They’re so busy. What we want to do is expose them to that problem-solving scenario as early as we can. Then that’s always in their minds.”

Therese Green is the computer teacher at St. Theresa School and leads the STEM Club, which does everything from programming to building. The club, in its third year, began with 20 students and has grown to 48 this year.

“We have a lot of girls, and I’m proud of that,” said Green.

The club works on teamwork, building and challenges and because the group is small, students get to do a lot more hands-on.

A parent taught the kids about rockets and this year they launched them on the soccer field, Green said.

The school has placed an emphasis on teaching the students computer and STEM skills.

“I find that if people have a passion and are truly interested, if you feed it, it grows,” said Carol Krichbaum, principal. “So I don’t have to be a techie or a scientist. All I have to do is have people who are passionate and they start to create phenomenal things. I have been very blessed to have people in our school who are very techie and very much into science.”

Krichbaum said the school has a kindergarten through fifth grade science lab, as well as a middle school science lab.

“The kids are responding so well and they can’t wait to create and develop their own ideas and express themselves,” she said. “They all do it differently and it’s fantastic to see.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016

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