Elementary-level school children in rural southwest Virginia will become the beneficiaries of an IBM Faculty Award presented to Wu Feng, associate professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech.

Feng is using the $16,000 award to develop and deliver a computer science curriculum to children in kindergarten through eighth grades via virtual computing. Mark Gardner of Virginia Tech’s Office of Information Technology is collaborating with this effort.

“We are extending and integrating our use of virtual computing with the Apache Virtual Computing Laboratory in order to improve the educational opportunities in science and engineering for students in rural and economically disadvantaged areas. The project will leverage an instantiation of the Virtual Computing Laboratory at Virginia Tech to host a visually-oriented computer science curriculum for kindergarten and elementary school children,” Feng said. 

“The project will also allow the computing laboratory’s software to be more easily deployed across a broader diversity of organizations, as well as make virtual computing more accessible to elementary and middle school children,” Feng added.

Access to the curriculum hosted at Virginia Tech’s Virtual Computing Laboratory will be supported via an existing high-speed network in southwest and southern Virginia, thanks to the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, and through new fiber optic communication to be developed under the Allegheny Fiber project. The new fiber network extends communications technologies into the complicated terrain of ridges and valleys of rural Virginia.

“We in the Office of Information Technology are fully committed to the university's mission of education and outreach. Personally, this project is important because it gives individuals and communities in rural Virginia opportunities for a better way of life,” noted Gardner.

“In keeping with the theme that teaching a man to fish feeds him and his family for a lifetime, the project will focus its efforts on improving access to computer science education, particularly for children in rural and economically disadvantaged areas,” Feng said. “In addition, what I have anecdotally found is that girls tend to lose their interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly referred to as The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathamatics (STEM) Education Coalition, in middle school, not high school because being smart in STEM areas is “not cool” – hence, my focus on the K-8 grades.  With a grade-school girl of my own, I don’t want her to not choose a STEM area just because it is not cool.  I hope to show her as well as her peers, just how much fun STEM areas, such as computer science, can be.”

As the computer science curriculum for kindergarteners through eighth graders continues to evolve and a production-ready instantiation of the Apache Virtual Computing Laboratory is readied, Feng predicted the integrated project, combining K-8 computer science curriculum with virtual computing, will be widely deployed and supported for elementary schools by the summer of 2011.