On October 9, 2014 I had the great fortune to attend my first CBIC Tech Tour. I joined more than 350 Virginia high school and middle school students to visit and get to know three of the nearly 90 Charlottesville companies and organizations to participate in this year's Tech Tour: the U.Va. Digital Media Lab, SNL Financial, and Hemoshear.
The morning started at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC), where students from across the state gathered and competed in an engineering challenge to design in 15 minutes a bridge that could support a one pound weight using only a plastic bag, plastic straws, construction paper, and tape. Before even entering the building students excitedly discussed the day’s activities. Once the competition started, however, the students were nothing but laughs, smiles, and constructive discussion as they worked together to figure out a strategy for their structure. It was amazing how much each design varied from the next, but in the end just three teams came away with structurally sound bridges. Two of these teams were from Orange County High School, located just under an hour north of Charlottesville. Throughout the day I tagged along with Mrs. Lyttle and Miss Rivera’s Orange County High School group to share the students’ experience and get to know their thoughts on the Tour.
Our first stop was the U.Va. Digital Media Lab, located in Clemons Library at the University of Virginia. The role of any library, as our hosts described, is to facilitate the authorship and communication of information. At the Digital Media Lab cutting edge technologies are put to this use. Oculus Rift googles immerse users in a virtual reality where one can ride a roller coaster through a medieval castle or explore anywhere in the world without leaving the comfort of home, or the Lab in this case. Some students found themselves dizzied from the experience, but thrilled by the possibilities and potential applications for gaming–a definite interest of many in the group.
Next we got to see the Lab’s 3D capabilities. Using a special camera, one employee had scanned and recreated a section of the U.Va. campus as a full color three dimensional model, including Gutzon Borglum’s The Aviator statue outside Clemons. He produced replicas of The Aviator using the Lab’s 3D printers and explained how such technologies can be used for everything from recreating landmarks to reproducing custom tools or parts for engineering. The 3D camera also has a wide range of uses. We were told of beachfront town which scanned its coastline before and after a major storm to calculate erosion losses and apply for a FEMA grant.
Last on our tour of the Digital Media Lab was a motion capture system which consists of a sensor-laden full body suit that recreates a human figure in a virtual environment. Such technologies are used in gaming, film, biotech, architectural, and many other industries to model how a person moves around in and interacts with his or her environment. Remember Gollum from Lord of the Rings? The character's body was actually mapped to real-life movements of Andy Serkis, his voice actor. Mrs. Lyttle teaches a class on digital animation, and her students were keenly interested in all the technologies in use at the Lab. Many of the students I talked to have a passion for video games or virtual design, and it was easy to see how enthusiastic they were about the experience.
After departing the U.Va. Digital Media Lab we traveled to SNL Financial where Senior Manager of IT Delivery John Peterson greeted us and took us around to the newsroom, mapping department, and service desk. The newsroom employees were happy to open up and describe the work they do. Financial data and news from around the globe is funneled into the SNL newsroom where reporters hash the information to produce comprehensive and actionable insights for all sorts of clients in the financial industry. SNL has become so good that Bloomberg has begun to notice them as a threat, but business is growing fast and John emphasized the fact that SNL is always in the market for skilled employees. In the mapping department we saw how coders create visual representations of data linked to physical locations all over the globe. Want to know what US nuclear power plants are up for regulatory review? Punch in your criteria and there you go. Interested in seeing the routes of all major petroleum pipelines through Europe? No problem, it’s just a few clicks away. Students asked about the backgrounds of the mapping coders and were wowed by a former game developer who explained how he had transitioned from a major gaming company to SNL. Soon though, we were downstairs at the service desk where programmers solve client problems in realtime. Thankfully we didn’t interrupt any urgent issues, but students got to see how client requests are triaged and escalated if they are particularly tricky. Before we knew it our second visit was over and it was back on the bus for lunch.
This gave me the opportunity to talk more with a few students about their interests and what drew them to the Tech Tour. Several students described the glowing reviews their older peers had given the previous year for this entirely voluntary event, and they all mentioned an interest in technology. This interest makes sense given the students are part of a STEM program at Orange County High School where they must complete at least one industry certification to graduate with a standard degree, as per Virginia law. Though some of the students were focused on the upcoming and much dreaded college application process, many expressed confidence in career choices ranging from engineer to architect and programmer to animator. The CBIC Tech Tour allowed them the opportunity to learn about new career paths available to them, discover technologies they might use in their profession, or reaffirm existing desires to follow their interests.
The final stop on our branch of the Tech Tour was the biotech firm Hemoshear. Here we learned about the proprietary technology Hemoshear uses to model circulation in live tissues and how the research done at Hemoshear helps make treatments for a wide range of ailments safer and more effective. The lab tour was interesting, if a bit technical, and was capped off by a very special presentation. Using liquid nitrogen, of which there was plenty in the lab, an employee flash froze a rose for the students to see, then shattered it on a conference room table, much to everyone’s surprise. Next, he popped a marshmallow into the clear, frigid liquid. When he ate it, great puffs of steam shot out from his nostrils like a dragon, thrilling the students to no end. The real treat, however, came when he poured a creamy liquid into a large mixer and slowly stirred in liquid nitrogen. After ten minutes of mixing we had fresh vanilla ice cream, and the students couldn’t help but rush up to get their share. It was great fun, and easily the tastiest experience of the day.
Overall the students and I learned a great deal about the three organizations we visited, and we all came away more than a little optimistic about all the technologies our futures hold. The U.Va. Digital Media Lab, SNL Financial, Hemoshear, and surely all the other sponsors and corporate partners of the CBIC Tech Tour really went out of their way to create an unforgettable day for us all, and I really have to hand it to them for pulling out all the stops to engage and excite the scores of teenagers who descended upon them. In addition, none of this would have been possible without the support of our teachers, who inspire and instill the confidence to pursue careers that will lead to productive and fulfilling lives for Virginia’s next generation of technologists.