Engineering excellence

Kiwanis-led partnership connects students and engineers in real time.

By Cindy Dashnaw

“Business partnerships are initially romantic … resting largely on hopes and dreams, what might be possible if certain opportunities are pursued,” reported an article in the Harvard Business Review. If that’s the case, Peter Wyeth of the Kiwanis Club of Richmond, Virginia, is quite a matchmaker. 

Wyeth saw an opportunity, matched it with teachers’ and Kiwanians’ hopes and dreams and created a partnership that inspires fourth- and fifth-graders to think big.

In his Kiwanis club, Wyeth focuses on schools — members have a long history of supporting the John B. Cary Elementary School — and he knew that Michael Powell, Cary’s principal, had an engineering-related goal. Serendipitously, Wyeth was retired from a career with Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering.

“I knew Michael was on a mission to get all his students college- and career-ready by emphasizing STEM, and I knew VCU had a great engineering program,” Wyeth says. “So we suggested a meeting.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

The partners wanted students to see what STEM could do for their futures. The answer was to bring VCU’s engineering expertise into a Cary classroom. 

But how? The college was tech-ready; Cary was not. All relationships are give-and-take, though, and the club gave — by funding Cary’s Distance Learning Lab with videoconferencing technology that allows real-time conversations between students and instructors.

Now, every month, wide-eyed fourth- and fifth-graders watch instructors demonstrate engineering wonders such as how to cut metal with water or build a robot to operate machinery. 

Wyeth brought fellow Kiwanians John Mahone and Bob Rogers into the partnership, along with Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, VCU’s director of government and community outreach.

Mahone credits Wyeth for the project’s success, telling the VCU News, “Without Peter’s leadership, this partnership would likely never have gotten off the ground.” 

Wyeth is not done matchmaking yet. Energized by the students’ interest, he’s now helping the VCU Engineering In Vision program expand into elementary schools across central Virginia and middle schools in Richmond.

“We need all these folks to be engaged to make this work,” he says. “Everyone realizes the U.S. needs to grow way more of our own scientists and engineers.”

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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