Tech Bytes: USFSP offers virtual reality training to future teachers; plus more local tech news

It’s one thing to teach students from a textbook with artist renderings of say, ancient Greece. It’s quite another to allow them to virtually walk through ruins in Athens. The University of South Florida St. Petersburg is now able to do the latter, thanks to its new, hands-on Science, Technology, Education and Math lab.
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“With the virtual reality, we bring the ancient ruins to them in a moment’s notice,” explains Allyson Watson, Dean of USFSP’s College of Education. “By taking them into the scene of Plato and Socrates, and looking at the ruins, it’s taking the learning experience and making it come to life.”

USFSP officially opened its STEM lab in October, bringing in students and the general public to experience virtual reality, robots, and coding.

“It [STEM] takes the students to the next level of critical thinking. We want students to know and understand how to solve problems,” says Watson, who holds master’s and doctorate degrees in Educational Administration, Curriculum and Supervision from the University of Oklahoma. “We want them to know and understand how there’s more than one way to come up with a solution.”

The lab, funded with nearly $300,000 in state STEM dollars, is modeled after a pre-engineering department, enabling it to better partner with other colleges on experiential learning. The lab, built for flexibility on the second floor of Coquina Hall, replaces outdated space from the 1960s.

It features a built-in robotics scrimmage board, 3D printers, a state-of-the-art laser printer, First Lego robots, and other tools that allow users to experiment more.

“We opened it because we know that in order to prepare future teachers,” she says, “we have to merge the literary arts -- liberal arts, critical thinking, and science. We want our students to be creative geniuses.”

USFSP began beefing up its STEM program with a summer camp for fifth- through eighth-graders last summer. It hosted the Pinellas County Math Teacher Leader Academy on November 7. Its slate of events includes hosting a Lego Scrimmage in December, participating in the Pinellas County STEM Expo in April, expanding its summer camp, and doing a parents’ night out. Through a memorandum of understanding, Pasco-Hernando State College students also are able to use the lab.

BFrankStudio of Tampa was the architect for the project; construction was done by Willis Smith Construction of Sarasota. Community partners include state Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who helped secure funds, and Wells Fargo.

FabLab comes to Tampa

In Tampa, the not-for-profit Foundation for Community Driven Innovation also is giving STEM education a boost with help from a $30,000 grant from the Argosy Foundation and other donors.

It has begun work on its new Tampa Bay Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics Center FabLab at University Mall near the USF main campus. In cooperation with the Mall, Hillsborough County Libraries, Code for Tampa Bay Brigade, PLuGHiTz Corporation and other partners, it is developing a community center to be used for creative expression, fabrication and rapid prototyping, and product development.

A grand opening is anticipated in the spring of 2019.

In addition to serving people of all ages, the FabLab will act as the FIRST youth robotics hub for Tampa Bay and Central Florida, offering the only permanent FIRST Robotics Competition field in the state. It also will offer a FIRST Tech Challenge field and FIRST LEGO League tables, resources and gear, with the potential of helping more students become involved in STEM.

“We are in the process of applying for additional grants and sponsorship support to pay for equipment like 3D printers, sewing machines, CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machine, laser cutter, audio/visual equipment and so forth,” says Terri Willingham, the organization’s Executive Director.

Read on for more Tampa Bay tech news

• USFSP has partnered with Duke Energy on a Tesla battery solar storage system described as the first of its kind in Florida. The battery system stores or reroutes unused energy captured by a solar array on top of the university’s parking garage. The energy is used at the garage to run the garage’s elevator, lights and electric vehicle charging stations.

• Nominations are open for the 2019 Florida Inventors Hall of Fame, which recognizes inventors who have advanced the quality of life in Florida and the nation. The inventor can be alive or dead, as long as they have or have had some affiliation with the state. He or she must be named as an inventor on a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The invention should have had an impact through its commercialization, use or importance to other innovations. Founded in 2013, the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame is based in Tampa at USF Research Park. The deadline is February 1; self-nominations will not be accepted. More information is available here.

• Valerie Landrio McDevitt, USF’s Associate VP for technology transfer and business partnerships, has been awarded the BioFlorida Leadership Award in recognition of her service as an ambassador for BioFlorida, which represents Florida’s life sciences industry. McDevitt served as its Chairman of the Board in 2016.

• The NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium has extended a research project it is funding at the Lakeland-based Florida Polytechnic University. The project, originally slated to end in October, will run through the spring, 2019. Florida Poly is researching how algae can be used to enhance space travel. Researchers at the university are studying how a tiny form of algae, called diatoms, can boost solar cells’ efficiency. They also are looking to simplify the capture of carbon dioxide and the production of oxygen, making it more cost effective. The research was extended because of positive results with studies on carbon dioxide capture.

In other Florida Poly news, Assistant Professor Dr. Karim Elish has received a $70,500 grant to develop a cutting-edge, mobile-computing-security curriculum. The grant was awarded by the Florida Center for Cybersecurity for an evolving program including hands-on virtual labs. It is expected to promote collaboration and resource sharing within the cybersecurity education community.

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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