Twenty-two years ago, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering opened with the vision to “…become the preeminent college in education, research and technological development at the intersection of engineering, business, medicine and the life sciences.” One-hundred students made up the freshman class.
By 2018, the School evolved into a College. Its nuclear engineering program is nationally ranked. The undergraduate student body stands 2,100 strong, and the College of Engineering plans to double enrollment in order to support the expanding need for technical talent in Central Virginia and beyond.
Of the current incoming students, the largest percentage is from Henrico, 90% are from Virginia, and 89% of graduates remain in our state post graduation. In short, when tech businesses are looking for a location that offers a steadfast, top-talent pipeline to bolster their workforce, they know Henrico is the perfect place.
Gaining a Competitive Edge
Last month, the Dean of the VCU College of Engineering, Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., contributed to a panel discussion at the inaugural Richmond NAP Summit. Around her, leaders were gathered to discuss the benefits of Henrico as a new global interconnection hub. During the talk, Boyan made a pledge to produce the type of top tech talent area businesses need.
“Our hundreds of business partners are telling us they need more engineers to grow and stay competitive in the rapidly changing digital economy,” Boyan shared with us.
Luckily, the VCU College of Engineering and Boyan, ever forward-thinking, had established a path to satisfy this need years ago. In 2013, they released a Strategic Plan to become a top 50 research university and desired destination for budding engineers.
A Plan Comes Together
In 2017, thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the College of Engineering established the first-of-its-kind Medicines for All Institute in order to improve access to affordable high-quality medicine. Last summer, VCU broke ground on a $93 million engineering research building set to feature a 9,000-square-foot experiential learning space.
It was dubbed the “Innovation Maker Facility” – a spot where businesses can co-locate to work directly with students on research projects on campus.
This March, VCU announced plans to build another STEM facility, spanning 168,000 square feet, to provide space for College of Humanities and Sciences students’ surging demand for STEM classes. More than 15,000 students take STEM classes each year at VCU.
But facilitating the premier education of undergraduates and graduates is only half the story. The College of Engineering also reaches out to cultivate a lifetime of learning within the community.
Through its Early Engineers program, the College of Engineering engages with Richmond-area students as early as kindergarten. It also offers paths of learning through high school.
“Elementary school students make soda bottle rockets and airplanes at the Innovation Days we host,” explains Boyan. “One of our doctoral students has created a program that helps middle school students who learn differently understand engineering concepts. Our Dean’s Early Research Initiative (DERI) lets high school students do research in active college labs.”
VCU also facilitates an internship program with Henrico companies, including GE Digital, Hamilton Beach and Suez. Beginning in 2020, upon completion of Engineering Research Building, companies can use the symposium and lab space to conduct translational research alongside the students. There, they can collaborate, innovate and discover ways to harness and commercialize the power of new technologies.
“By creating the right experiential environment, many times our business partners learn as much as our students, discovering bright, talented employees with strong technology skills for their companies,” says Boyan.
The College of Engineering’s reach in the community is not limited to students. It also extends to local teachers, providing them with STEM resources and training— free of charge —so that they can integrate STEM into their curriculum.
Preparing for the Future
The VCU College of Engineering recently launched a post-baccalaureate graduate certificate program in cybersecurity and data. In it, students can learn how to become cyber warriors through assisting software developers, assessing security risks, and learning new ways to raise an ironclad defense against future cyber attacks.
Courtesy of the VCU College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, students in all majors can earn a Fundamentals of Computing specialization to gain exposure to computer science skills, making them an even greater asset to companies. Courses include computers and programming, software engineering and web development, and data science and cybersecurity skills.
A Key Ingredient for Success
Both VCU and Boyan know that access to STEM graduates is at the core of tech companies’ location decisions. And they’re doing everything they can to deliver one of a business’ greatest assets – skilled employees.
“The VCU College of Engineering was founded on the principle that academia and industry are part of an important partnership,” notes Boyan. “It is clear from the Amazon HQ2 decision that the availability of technical talent is perhaps the single most important parameter when large multinational companies make expansion and relocation decisions.”
VCU’s progressive plan to grow and expand the tech talent pipeline provides just the sort of competitive advantage Henrico companies need for continued success.