When the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab opened in Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region in fall 2016, planners were hoping the facility would average 2,000 student visits per year.

That estimate was a tad short. In two-and-a-half years, more than 17,000 visitors have walked through the doors of the lab. In addition, the bold program, designed to provide creative, collaborative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and training, has touched more than 200,000 students, teachers, and administrators.

On April 26, the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center will officially open. Sixth-grade students from the Roanoke region will spend an inspiring day immersed in a STEM environment with hands-on learning.

“Our community has been thrilled to hear that a Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab is coming to the Roanoke area,” said Executive Director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives Lesa Hanlin. “The lab adds a whole new dimension to our portfolio at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center.”

The new Thinkabit Lab features an engaging environment where students will create and present an internet-of-things-inspired robotic invention. Their experience is enriched by instruction on Arduino microcontrollers, using breadboards, Servos, and LEDs, while their creative side can use a variety of fun craft supplies in their unique creation. Innovative guidelines, materials, and teaching resources are provided by Qualcomm.

“We’re excited to build on our partnership with Virginia Tech by opening this lab in Roanoke, Virginia,” said Angela Baker, director of corporate responsibility at Qualcomm. “As a global company that’s spearheading the Invention Age, without barriers to invention, we believe that helping to support the world’s next generation of innovators and increasing access to STEM is critical.”

The Thinkabit Lab Signature Experience is open to sixth-graders, with plans to expand to other grades. Students will engage in a variety of career and engineering activities created by Qualcomm. Their exploration will include students’ own strengths, interests, and values, followed by basic programming and creative robotics. Working in small groups, students will apply their newly gained knowledge to design and build an invention that solves a real-world problem.

The Thinkabit Lab at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center combines the expertise of Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab model with Virginia Tech’s rich resources to create an inclusive experience for all students. Students will end their day with the ability to take the first steps toward a possible STEM-inspired career journey, a necessity in the growing technology-driven workforce, Hanlin said.

“The new Thinkabit Lab located at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center will contribute significantly to the innovation ecosystem emerging throughout the region,” said Susan Short, Virginia Tech associate vice president for engagement. “The new facility provides greater access for students to experience hands-on activities that foster creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving, as well as expands STEM-related resources for teachers.”

The original Thinkabit Lab opened in 2014 at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters. In 2016, Virginia Tech and Qualcomm Inc. opened the first Thinkabit Lab on the East Coast in the National Capital Region.

The Thinkabit Lab in the National Capital Region averages about 4.6 visiting groups per week, according to Jim Egenrieder, director of that Thinkabit Lab. Young students have wired, programmed, and crafted their own unique innovations, such as a roving robot vacuum topped with a wide variety of decorations, animations of many recognizable pop culture icons, model traffic light systems, and all kinds of environmental sensors.

The Thinkabit Lab at Virginia Tech has evolved with the needs of school partners, the new Virginia Computer Science curriculum standards, and the Virginia Department of Education Portrait of a Graduate. The Qualcomm World of Work technical college and career exploration – along with the hands-on engineering and programming that take place in the Thinkabit Lab – are popular with both students and educators.

In addition to working with schools to design, develop, and implement school-based maker spaces, the Thinkabit Lab in the Virginia Tech National Capital Region helps teachers and students in underserved schools with loaner kits containing technology, printed materials, or curricula from the lab.

“We’re able to provide the things that would be difficult for them to get on their own,” Egenreider said. “Equity is a big concern in STEM education. [It’s] the key to diversity in STEM.”

The Thinkabit Lab is supported by the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity in the College of Engineering and also collaborates with Virginia Tech’s School of Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“It is the hope of university leaders that the new innovation lab in Roanoke will build on the significant success achieved in Northern Virginia and will inspire and equip students throughout the Roanoke region with expertise and skills in order to address complex challenges of the future,” Short said.

The Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center is offered at no charge to area school districts, with support from Qualcomm and generous community sponsors. The grand opening on April 26 is from 3 to 5 p.m. It will feature an open house, a ceremony, and a hands-on Thinkabit experience.

To learn more about the Thinkabit Lab program, email ContactThinkabitLab@Qualcomm.com or STEM@vt.edu. To learn more about the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, visit vtrc.vt.edu/thinkabit or contact Lesa Hanlin at 540-767-6100 or lesa@vt.edu.

Written by Leigh Stover and Olivia Coleman, with contributions from Richard Lovegrove