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Community Transformation Project helps youngsters gather STEAM

CTP director Vickie Webb works with students during a class.

Ask Vickie Webb what Saturdays are for and she’ll tell you they’re for fun and exploration. Webb is the founder and director of the Community Transformation Project – a program based in WVU Tech’s Innovation Building that takes Saturday exploration to new levels.

The free program is designed to connect K-12 students with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) concepts. It brings youngsters in for an afternoon of learning, where they explore everything from how to handle money and gardening to piloting drones and coding.

On Saturday, May 5, the program logged its last class of the year.

Webb is no stranger to K-12 community outreach. She started out at Beckley Stratton Middle School as coordinator of the school's the 21st-Century Community Learning Center, where she worked with after-school programs for four years.

Students work at computer stations during a Community Transformation Project class.

"I'm an advocate of afterschool programs because I know they work. The extra time and attention makes a big difference for these kids. When you can provide that extra attention in a fun and creative atmosphere, it makes the students want to be here and to learn more,” she said.

She wanted to build a new kind of program, so she started the Community Transformation project in partnership with the MUSTER Project and with support from the NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy program at West Virginia State University.

"Our little program started out in 2015 with a couple of tables and chairs in the basement of a church," she joked. “The project started with a grant from the Beckley Area Foundation, a couple of laptops and a handful of LEGO WeDo sets.”

Before she knew it, the Community Transformation Project started growing. Webb got connected with the HIVE, a business incubation and entrepreneurship program run by the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority. The HIVE agreed to a partnership with the program, and so the Community Transformation Project moved into the HIVE’s space in the Innovation Building on WVU Tech's campus. 

Now the program serves 25-30 students at a time and has access to a wide range of creative spaces. There’s a coding lab where students learn everything from how to create video games to programming robots. A maker lab with hand tools and a wearables lab outfitted with sewing equipment lets students create all manner of projects. There’s even a 3D printer.

“We did a pop-up 3D printing store in uptown and the kids sold their products,” said Webb. “They did three TV interviews in one day. It was awesome.”

United Bank set-up a banking station so that the students could learn about banking, money handling and credit. Students have learned about sign language and urban gardening. Next year they’ll work on 3D printing prosthetic limbs for children who can’t afford expensive equipment. For that project, Webb hopes to work with engineering students.

“We partner and collaborate with everyone we can. The West Virginia afterschool network in Charleston sent us 28 We Do kits to use through the end of the school year. NASA SEMAA lets us borrow stuff for programming. The superintendents of schools were here and offered to help us however they can,” said Webb.

“This is a real community project that we couldn't do without support from those around us.”

Webb said the program also encourages artistic expression in its students. One local elementary student, Landrey Gwinn, was recently one of only 53 students selected from a pool of 200,000 submissions in the Doodle 4 Google program

Webb said that beyond STEAM exploration, the program is giving students valuable skills that will help them when it comes time to enter the workforce. She said it teaches them problem-solving, critical thinking and valuable technical abilities.

"This is a perfect training spot to build those kinds of real-life skills that students can use when they get out into their careers. There are opportunities here to stay in West Virginia and be in a field you love," she said.

"I want every student to have an opportunity to experience STEAM learning. I want students from all over to have opportunities to get in STEAM fields so they can realize they can work in high-paying jobs and chase opportunities that are out there," she added.

The program might be wrapped up for the semester, but Webb says she’s looking forward to growth in the fall.

Students help each other out during a Community Transformation Project class.

Webb said the program is maintained entirely by volunteers, including professionals in IT, graphic design and a wide range of other fields who come in from all over the state to help out. Even her first student, Bradley, is now a volunteer in the program.

“A lot of these kids stick around and become mentors for the younger generation,” Webb said.

She said that WVU Tech students have also been helpful, and that volunteering for the project is a great way for college students to get some experience and pick up a few new skills of their own.

"If it's something that you can do to give back and to help kids in this area, it's worth it. We need more volunteers so we can have more kids here on campus. We have the space to grow. We just need some more hands to help us make it grow,” she said.

The Community Transformation Project kicks off again in October. To sign up, parents or guardians should stop by the program’s office on the first floor of the Innovation Building (campus map) or email Vickie Webb to find out more.