Kids’ Tech University, a program intended to get children excited about science, technology, engineering, math, and health, launched at Virginia Tech roughly 10 years ago through the work of Reinhard Laubenbacher, professor of math, and Kristy Collins, education and outreach senior research associate at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. This summer, two students are bringing new life to the research and development of the program as a hands-on undergraduate research project, funded by a joint National Science Foundation grant between Collins and William Mather in the Department of Physics.

Alex Gagliano, a junior majoring in computational modeling and data analytics, is partnered with Lily Hummer, a senior majoring in biology and psychology, both in the College of Science. The pair is taking on vital roles to update the curriculum on the program’s website and to add new learning modules and games for kids to the site.

“Basically we are creating online curriculum that bridges the gap between computer science, physics, and K-12 education,” Hummer said. “We are trying to encourage higher-level learning to younger kids and give them a platform to do that with.”

This is Hummer’s second full summer doing undergraduate research for the program.

“We started the groundwork last summer, and now it’s really about honing in and creating a much more interactive interface for the kids to use,” Hummer explained. “As opposed to just giving lessons, we are incorporating lessons into a lot of interactive games and hands-on learning as opposed to strictly visual or auditory learning.”

The curriculum features three main directives for students: the interactive session, the hands-on activity, and the virtual lab. Hummer and Gagliano are focused primarily on the latter.

“The site needs some modernization. We are trying to catch the website up and keep it relevant and interesting for kids to learn about various topics,” Gagliano said. “We’re using the old site as a jumping off point to create this game that will employ all of the concepts that they will have already learned in the pre-existing modules.”

Hummer’s research centers on aligning the curriculum with what students need to know for the Virginia Standards of Learning. Gagliano puts his coding skills to work to build the game, which will teach participants about different organelles and aspects of cells.

While Hummer has always been interested in education and psychology, some of this is untouched ground for Gagliano. In the past two years, he has changed his major several times — and he credits that, as well as his involvement in this project, to his learning experience since starting at Virginia Tech.

“I’m not entirely sure of my career path right now. Recently I’ve been dipping my toes into astronomy outreach,” Gagliano said.

He was recently awarded a $10,000 engineering and anthropology grant, the Wayne and Claire Horton Fellowship through University Honors, which will take him to West Africa next summer to develop astronomy activities to teach kids. That, he said, is what got him interested in hands-on science education and Kids’ Tech University.

Hummer has had some hands-on experience while working with Kids’ Tech University, including visits with the Montgomery County director for curriculum, as well as working with two local seventh-grade teachers and their students.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to contact and collaborate with a broader range of students and teachers, but as of now we have worked exclusively with local educational leaders,” Hummer said.

“It’s had a pretty local reach, but we’re hoping that once we are able to expand the website so that we can have a good reach on it and expand it, then we can use it all across Virginia,” Gagliano added. “If the National Science Foundation, who supports the project through a grant, deems it worthy and useful then it might actually go up on their website — which would move it from the regional, to the state, and then the national level.”

The new version of the website is scheduled to launch Jan. 23. Gagliano and Hummer both said they plan on staying involved in Kids’ Tech University, as well as other undergraduate research endeavors after this summer program ends.

“A secondary effect of the whole thing is that kids ask us questions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and it’s a great way to show them what we are working on,” Hummer said. “It’s cool to make those personal connections with the kids. It’s multifaceted in what its capable of, but the main objective is encouraging education for children and encouraging them to reach a little further than they might normally.”

Both students will be presenting their research at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium Thursday, July 30, in the atrium of Goodwin Hall at 635 Prices Fork Road. The following programs and institutes also will have students present their research at the symposium: REU in Cognitive Communications, Space@VT, Translational Obesity Undergraduate Research Scholars, REU in Biomechanics, Microbiology in Post Genome Era REU, Interdisciplinary Water Science and Engineering REU, Fralin's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Research Experiences for Teachers, and Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Undergraduate Scholars Program.

Written by Leslie McCrea, a senior University Honors student majoring in multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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