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2012 News Releases

Longwood’s Digispired project inspires high-school students to pursue STEM careers

October 30, 2012

Forest Williams of Prince Edward County High School shows Interim Longwood President Marge Connelly what he worked on during the recent Digispired Summer Academy.
Forest Williams of Prince Edward County High School shows Interim Longwood President Marge Connelly what he worked on during the recent Digispired Summer Academy.

Tevin Logan wants to design video games for a living. Jacob Maskal plans to pursue a career in computer engineering. Hunter Mitchell wants to be an aerospace engineer.

They are among a group of students, now high-school seniors, who will soon be graduating from Digispired, a National Science Foundation-funded project at Longwood University that has given them hands-on experience in video game design, electronic technologies and programming tools, and sought to interest them in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The project for students in Southside and Central Virginia, sponsored by Longwood's Institute for Teaching Through Technology and Innovative Practices (ITTIP), consisted of Digispired: Developing Interactive Games and Programming Skills, funded in 2007, and its successor, Digispired ii: Workforce Investigation Inspiration for STEM, funded in 2010.

Encouraging and preparing students for advanced education in STEM areas has been an important initiative of Gov. Bob McDonnell. "The commonwealth's future economic competitiveness will depend in large measure on our ability to increase the number of Virginians with high-demand degrees in the STEM disciplines," McDonnell said in a story on his website.

Digispired participants are well on their way toward that goal.

"My interest in computer programming snowballed because of Digispired," said Maskal of Rice, a senior at Prince Edward County High School who is among 23 students who have participated in the project since it began in 2007. Graduation ceremonies are set for Nov. 3 on the Longwood campus.

Participants, some of whom participated only the last three years, have learned interactive game design and the software behind the games. They also have interacted with scientists, game designers and engineers at universities, on field trips to industries and during visits to science centers.

"A much higher percentage of those who have been with us all six years, compared with those who participated for three years, have said they want to pursue careers in computer science or computer engineering, graphic design, industrial design, or electrical or mechanical engineering," said Dr. Manorama Talaiver, ITTIP director and the principal investigator for the project, adding that participants have included rural, low-income minority students, including females. "Of the 23, all but one, I think, are interested in STEM careers. The three-year students are interested in a wide range of fields, and they were less specific about their career choices."

April Napier of Drakes Branch, a senior at Randolph-Henry High School, has participated in Digispired for the past three years. "I am going to use the technology skills I learned in Digispired and put them to good use in the health field," she said.

Digispired student Hunter Mitchell of Midlothian, a senior in Lloyd C. Bird High School's Governor's Academy for Engineering Studies, has enjoyed working with LilyPad Arduino, a set of electronic components that can be sewn into material. All students have been working this year on a LilyPad-related project-Mitchell's has been making a clock in the back of a T-shirt. "You can make LilyPad communicate with a smartphone, and it can do GPS functions," he said.

The project, however, is about more than just circuit boards and video games. "Digispired is not just about game design. It's about motivating these students to explore and understand STEM-related fields," said Talaiver.

About 85 middle-school students participated in the first Digsipired project, which was funded with an $891,000 NSF grant. The students got together four-to-five Saturdays in the fall and the same number of times every spring, and they attended a two-week "summer academy" held each summer at several middle schools. The first project ran through fall 2009.

About 60 high-school students have taken part in the second Digispired project, funded with a $1,049,777 NSF grant, which began in summer 2010 with rising 10th-graders. It also has featured eight to 10 Saturday get-togethers during the school year and a two-week summer academy, which has been held at Longwood, Virginia State University (VSU) and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston.

"Digispired I was about gaming and robotics, and Digispired II has been about becoming more aware of STEM fields and exploring the STEM principles behind the games and controllers," Talaiver said. "They've also learned how to work collaboratively."

VSU's engineering and computer science faculty and a faculty member from Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) collaborated with Longwood faculty in research, instructional design and implementation. Three collaborators who facilitated research and instructional activities were Dr. Ehsan Sheybani and Dr. Giti Javidi of VSU and Dr. Seung Yang of GGC.

The ITTIP, headquartered in South Boston, is an outreach of Longwood that researches and develops technology-related instructional strategies and models. It serves primarily 25 public school divisions in Southside Virginia.