A pioneering educational program designed to excite children about science and provide them with a real university experience will be offered for this first time in the United States thanks to the efforts of a team at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

Kids’ Tech University (KTU) is a groundbreaking program for kids between the ages of 8 and 12 that gives children the opportunity to participate in a series of engaging scientific activities, including lectures presented by scientific researchers who also have a strong track record in communication and teaching science. The goal is to expose kids early to cutting-edge research in science, math, engineering, and technology in a setting designed so that children will be both engaged and entertained.

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Tech Mathematics Professor Reinhard Laubenbacher has spearheaded the initiative, which is partly inspired by a European educational program started a few years ago in Germany. Laubenbacher learned about the program, Die Kinder-Uni (Kid’s University), after reading a newspaper article during a recent family visit to Germany. He says he believes that a similar program, which strives to introduce children to scientific research in a university setting, has all the right ingredients to be successful in the United States.

“KTU is a new approach for getting kids excited about science,” Laubenbacher explains. “The goal is not to offer a set curriculum for students, but to give children access to passionate speakers who are committed to sparking kids’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While this kind of initiative has never been offered in the United States, we believe KTU has significant potential to serve as a model for the development of other Kids’ Tech Universities all around the country.”

Laubenbacher has partnered with Kristy DiVittorio, a senior research associate in education and outreach at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, to make KTU a reality. Laubenbacher and DiVittorio have worked closely on the development and design of the program.

DiVittorio also manages all aspects of the program, from scheduling speakers to procuring funding. “We plan to give kids a full experience of what it is like to be enrolled at a real university. By this we mean lectures by real professors in a real university setting accompanied by lab activities that provide hands-on experiences,” says DiVittorio.

The first semester of KTU is scheduled to begin in January 2009. Parents with children living within a three-hour drive of the Blacksburg, Va., campus can enroll their children in the program. Parents are also strongly encouraged to participate in the program’s campus-centered activities, which include a semester-long series of lectures in a Virginia Tech lecture hall, lunch in one of the on-campus dining facilities, and hands-on activities developed in partnership with Virginia 4-H to build on the lecture concepts.

The program also incorporates an online lab component with activities designed to promote a continued interest in the lecture topics, as well as providing a forum area to promote discussion and teamwork for after the children leave campus.

“We want to help change the way science is presented to children,” says Laubenbacher. “Science is one of the great adventures of the 21st century. We want children to understand that, through science, they can in their own way become scientific explorers like Albert Einstein or Jane Goodall. They can go to new places, participate in discoveries, and make significant contributions to the world we live in.”

The KTU spring 2009 semester will feature four scientific events. Dates, topics, and speakers include

  • Jan. 31, 2009: “Why are there animals with spotted bodies and striped tails, but no animal with a striped body and a spotted tail?” presented by Keith Devlin, known as “The Math Guy” on National Public Radio and co-founder and executive director of Stanford’s Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, who is interested in how mathematics relates to the everyday world.
  • Feb. 28, 2009: “Why are some computer programs so frustrating?” presented by Caitlin Kelleher, assistant professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, who designed the software program “Storytelling Alice” to help teach girls in middle school about computer programming.
  • March 28, 2009: “Why are plastic bottles bad for alligators?” presented by Louis Guillette, professor and director of the Howard Hughes Group Advantaged Training of Research (G.A.T.O.R.) Program at the University of Florida, who wrestles alligators in the swamps of Florida for sample collection to study the effects of environmental contaminants on wildlife.
  • April 18, 2009: “Why can’t humans survive on Mars?” presented by Phil Christensen, professor in Arizona State University’s Department of Geological Science, who has been a driving force in building several NASA instruments launched into space to map the Martian surface, including the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, Mars Global Surveyor, and the Mars Exploration Rover.

“We have ambitious plans for Kids’ Tech University. We hope to see similar universities take hold across the country, building on the success of Dr. Laubenbacher’s program and using some of the online tools that we will be making available in the near future,” says Bruno Sobral, executive and scientific director of the institute.

Laubenbacher adds, “This innovative project is naturally scalable and can lead to a virtual network of similar Kids’ Tech Universities all over the United States. The educational benefits of such a network could be profound.”

The application deadline for KTU is Jan. 15, 2009. Find more information about the program online or contact Kristy DiVittorio at (540) 231-1389.

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