Last year, the Office of Undergraduate Research awarded almost $50,000 in grants to faculty from five colleges with the goal of increasing the opportunities for Virginia Tech students to gain valuable work and research experience. 

“Participating in research and experiential learning can be a transformative part of a student’s education,” said Keri Swaby, director of undergraduate research at Virginia Tech. “But we know there’s a limit to the number who can participate in the traditional one-on-one mentorships, so the goal of this grant program is to support our faculty as they find creative ways to expand these opportunities for more of our students.”

The grants created a wide range of opportunities, from exploring  the video game Minecraft as a teaching tool to creating training materials for researchers working with marginalized communities. More than 70 students participated with the aim that faculty will be able to scale up programs to include more undergrads in the future. 

It’s the fourth year the funds have been offered. The  recipients were Benjamin Chambers (College of Engineering); Natalie Ferand (College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences); Kevin Hamed and Robert Bush (College of Natural Resources and Environment); Najla Mouchrek (Honors College), Nathan Todd King and Emily Jean Vollmer (Office of Sustainability); Frederick Paige (College of Engineering) and Craig Arthur (University Libraries); and Andrew Schaudt (Pamplin College of Business).  

After a year of project design and research, three grant recipients shared the new programs they created and how their work helped prepare students for their careers and added depth to their experience at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) is nationally recognized for its work on road safety and automated vehicles, but it’s also an operating business with 300 employees and millions of dollars in public and private contracts. 

That work creates huge amounts of data that needs to be tracked and interpreted to inform decisions by engineers and staff, providing an ideal learning opportunity for students from the Pamplin College of Business. 

“There aren’t many opportunities for business students to meaningfully participate in undergraduate research at Virginia Tech,” said Andy Schaudt, chief of staff at VTTI and assistant professor of practice in the Department of Management. “Effective project management is a critical part of research and our interns have the opportunity to make valuable contributions to VTTI and explore a viable career path.”

To help meet that need and create new opportunities for business majors, VTTI  created the Project Management and Business Analytics in Transportation Internship with the support of a grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is one of the university's seven research institutes and works through government and private partnerships to inform public policy and improve safety on the country’s roads. The institute operates the Virginia Smart Road, a closed-testing facility that has allowed researchers to conduct more than 30,000 hours of research since it opened in 2000. VTTI also houses almost 90 percent of the naturalistic driving data in the world, the majority of which is through a contract with the National Academy of Sciences.

The internship is a partnership between VTTI and the Pamplin College of Business and part of a broader effort to enhance the institute's project management capabilities to support researchers with the administrative load associated with their work.

“Our researchers are all really smart and talented engineers and we want them to spend their time helping our customers by answering their research questions,” said Matthew Casadonte, program manager at VTTI’s Division of Data and Analytics.  “The data our interns work with is integral to how we operate as a business and the backbone of this whole system.”

During the spring semester, the interns tracked labor and budgets and made presentations using data visualization software such as Microsoft Power BI and Tableau to inform resource allocation. 

“We’re giving them an opportunity to sit in on meetings and see how we execute our projects and work with real data,” said Casadonte. “This isn’t just an assignment, they’re part of the real-life operation of a $50 million per year research institute

The interns each worked 10 hours per week for 14 weeks with their wages paid through the Office of Undergraduate Research grant. 

“When we started here, we helped develop one of the systems to allocate the time and effort employees are putting into each project,” said Rithika Khanna, a rising junior double majoring in business information technology and management. “I didn’t realize we would start this internship doing something so useful, and I found it really motivating to be able to work on something that would have such an impact.”

“The faith that they had in us to help start this program really pushed us to see what we can accomplish,” said Khanna. “It’s an experience I never would have gotten without this internship.” 

The program will likely continue at VTTI, pending the securing of funding. 

“Through the classes I’ve taken at Pamplin, I receive a lot of great information that I’ll carry forward in my career, but what I really value about this internship is the real-world application and the first-hand experience of being in a corporate setting,” said Sarah Jackson, a rising senior majoring in management consulting and analytics. “In the future, I know I’ll have more confidence because of the experience of this internship.”

Written by Will Rizzo