Strategic partnerships spur economic development, fuel experiential learning opportunities
John Provo knows that payoffs can be big when faculty members collaborate with industry leaders: Companies thrive, communities prosper, and students’ lives are transformed.
As executive director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, he connects businesses and communities across the commonwealth with the world-class resources of Virginia Tech.
“This university is a really powerful economic engine,” he said. “Our faculty and students are leading the kinds of innovative academic research that are creating new industries, driving economic growth, bringing research to market with the help of our Innovation and Partnerships team, and ensuring that Virginia stays globally competitive.”
His job, he said, is to listen to business and community leaders, help them strategically assess their needs, and then link them with the university assets to help them thrive and grow. Such partnerships benefit Virginia Tech too, by fueling experiential learning opportunities, internships, and real-world engagement for students.
During a panel discussion at a meeting of the Academic, Research, and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Visitors on Nov. 14, Provo spotlighted one such collaboration between an additive manufacturing innovator and a College of Engineering professor who is pioneering research in the field. The discussion followed a presentation a day earlier that highlighted Virginia Tech's leadership in spurring ecoomic development and driving job creation across the commonwealth.
Nanci Hardwick is CEO and founder of MELD Manufacturing, a 3D-printing developer based in nearby Christiansburg. Her company invented a process for printing metal using a technology called additive friction stir deposition. For years, MELD has partnered with Professor Chris Williams and other researchers across the university.
“Virginia Tech ranks as one of the top additive manufacturing programs in the world, and in MELD, we’re fortunate to have one of the companies leading the future of the industry right next door,” said Williams, the L.S. Randolph Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
A 25-year veteran of the field, Williams started researching this transformative manufacturing technology well before 3D printing became so common. Since he arrived on the Blacksburg campus in 2008, his team at the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab has not only produced a steady stream of innovative 3D-printed objects, they have also led initiatives to make better printers, pioneered new materials, and mentored the next generation of inventors.
Williams, who was named as a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors earlier this year and celebrated at the inaugural Virginia Tech Celebrating Innovators event, has grown the DREAMS Lab rapidly since joining the university in 2008. The lab fills two large rooms in Goodwin Hall and has added the capacity for 3D printing materials such as copper, latex, and Kapton. Projects have been sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy, and industry partners, among others.
“Partnerships with companies such as MELD lead to some of the greatest impact of the work we do,” Provo said. “They enable the university to seek out larger federal grants and help our students and faculty expand into new companies. Increasingly, federal agencies recognize the value of industry participation to accelerate promising research and build the economic ecosystem.”
And the kind of experiential opportunities these collaborations open up for both undergraduate and graduate students are an integral part of the educational process, he said. “These partnerships are a ground-up model for building capacity to tackle grand challenges in ways that grow the economy while not sacrificing the rest of our land-grant mission.”
Williams said that by working with MELD, his students are learning with real context. “Virginia Tech is known for our graduates’ ability to move into the workforce immediately after graduation and to be successful. Such collaborations allow us to build upon this and ensure that we are delivering the kinds of skills that employers need.”
Since 2014, Virginia Tech has been designated an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The designation recognizes the university’s substantive, sustainable, and institutionwide commitment to and strategy for regional economic engagement, growth, and economic opportunity.