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South Boston News
The STEM-H Mobile Lab / September 04, 2014
To get students interested in manufacturing careers, sometimes you’ve first got to deliver the experience directly to them — at least that’s the thinking of officials as the Virginia Tobacco Commission ramps up its new Center of Excellence (COE) in South Boston.

Young people shouldn’t think manufacturing today is what it was when their parents or grandparents were employed at the local mill. “You can eat off the floor at the Rolls Royce plant” in Prince William County, the U.S. manufacturing hub of the British auto and aerospace firm, said Tim Pfohl, executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission. “These are high paying jobs.”

To convey the news, the leaf commission is considering a road show: a second STEM-H mobile lab for the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. The Institute is seeking $325,000 for the mobile lab to boost its outreach campaign on STEM-H careers (science, technology, engineering and math, plus health) throughout the Southside region.

The need is even more acute with the Tobacco Commission’s big investment in the Centers of Excellence, envisioned as mid-skill training facilities for careers in advanced manufacturing: welding, industrial maintenance and precision machining. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center will house one of the three centers; other sites will be in Martinsville and at a Southwest Virginia locality yet to be determined.

As envisioned, the Centers of Excellence each will produce about 70 graduates annually with advanced industrial skills. To achieve that goal, however, the Centers will need a steady of pipeline of students interested in manufacturing as a career. That’s where the rolling STEM-H lab comes in.

“Studies show that we need to capture the interest of students [in STEM and advanced manufacturing] before the eighth grade, when their focus starts to drift,” said Pfohl. One way educators try to pique interest is by introducing students to fun, hands-on activities; the STEM Mobile Learning Lab fills this role. It is designed to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math education through interactive experiments.

The Institute’s existing mobile lab has paid visits to schools in Halifax, Mecklenburg and other counties east of Danville, generating positive reviews among students and teachers. The lab also has proven to be a popular attraction at community events, such as the Virginia Lake Festival in Clarksville.

The Tobacco Commission is considering the Institute’s request for a second STEM-H lab as part of the current Special Projects grant round. No decisions have been made on whether to fund the request, but it is aligned with the focus of the Tobacco Commission, said Phohl.

Instead of drawing the money from the Special Projects allocation — $3.5 million is available in the fiscal year — the Tobacco Commission may opt to carve out the $325,000 from money already set aside for the Centers of Excellence. The commission has committed to spending $9 million on the centers; the SVHEC is receiving $2 million in start-up funding to establish the South Boston site.

In addition to a new mobile lab for the Institute, the Tobacco Commission is reviewing 16 other proposals for improving the economy and health outcomes in Southside and Southwest Virginia, including a project that could benefit cancer patients in Halifax County.

Virginia Commonwealth University has approached the Tobacco Commission with a $3 million proposal to expand cancer research that could lead to new clinical trials involving cancer patients in Southside Virginia. The research would take place at VCU Massey Hospital in Richmond.

VCU recently took over Community Memorial Healthcenter in South Hill through a partnership agreement similar to the one struck by Halifax Regional Hospital and Sentara Healthcare. However, the cancer project is not directly related to the South Hill hospital affiliation.

Phohl said VCU Massey is in the process of reducing the scope of its request in light of the limited funds available for special projects.

“These are only requests,” said Pfohl. “The staff has not made any recommendations.”

However, Pfohl noted that VCU Massey has received tobacco funding over the past few years. “A couple years ago the legislature amended our enabling legislation adding cancer research and tele-medicine as an eligible use of our funds. Let’s just say that they [VCU] are in the sweet spot for funding.”

He expects a decision will be made around Friday or Monday, September 5 or 8, in advance of the Tobacco Commission’s upcoming meeting on September 12.

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