In Lee Hall, the Da Vinci and Curie Living-Learning Communities—combined as CurVinci—bring together a wide swath of students from across the Virginia Tech campus into a residential hall where burgeoning scientists and engineers can share ideas, collaborate on research projects that demand teamwork, and mentor one another.
It is a high mark of learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Students join CurVinci as first-years and then move upward in increasing levels of community-based leadership via peer-to-peer mentoring and other leadership roles.
While the majority of students in Da Vinci (serving undergraduates in biological and life sciences) and Curie (serving quantitative and physical science students) come from the College of Science, members also hail from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
CurVinci bridges the gap between academic and student affairs by integrating science academics and interdisciplinary learning into a residential experience. CurVinci’s science students also live alongside engineering students. They are part of Virginia Tech’s broader inVenTs STEM community, an effort shared between the Colleges of Science and Engineering that includes the Hypatia and Galileo Living-Learning Communities for female and male engineering students, respectively.
In the inVenTs design studio in Lee Hall, students use 3-D scanners, 3-D printers, laser cutters, microscopes, and design software. Some projects are for class and others are for personal use, such as a 3-D printed cell phone holder. Equipment training is handled by graduate students.
Creating a culture of experiential learning through a "hands-on, minds-on" approach, CurVinci integrates six high-impact practices: undergraduate research, common intellectual experience, collaborative projects, learning community, community-based service learning, and a first-year experience program.
"Students are the driving force behind our living-learning communities," said Lori Blanc, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Biological Sciences and director of Da Vinci. "The work that we do in CurVinci is a multigenerational, collaborative effort in the true sense of the word. If we want students to become lifelong learners, we must bring the ‘life’ part of the equation into their educational experience."
Curie is overseen by Nikki Lewis, a post-doctoral fellow of undergraduate pedagogy with the Virginia Tech Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. Lewis is a Hokie alumna, with a doctoral degree in genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology.
Da Vinci was originally founded by students in 1999 as the Biological and Life Sciences Community and later re-named Da Vinci when Curie was established in 2012. In a bid to make the two groups more academically holistic, the combined CurVinci formed in 2013.
"Joining CurVinci is the greatest thing I could have done my first year at Virginia Tech, and I have heard many of my peers in the community say something to a similar effect during the past three years," said Lanie Eppers, a senior in biological sciences who has been in Da Vinci and Curie since her first year as an undergraduate. In spring 2017, she was lead of the student peer mentoring program.
As a mentor her sophomore year, Eppers said she learned more from her first-year mentees than they did as first-year students from her. "I learned about myself as a leader, I learned how to effectively work with and lead a team, and as the lead of the community’s mentoring division, I am still learning valuable skills in project management, problem-solving, organization, and communication that I know I will use for the rest of my professional life," Eppers said.
Francisco Ramos Mora, a senior in physics, is in charge of CurVinci’s academic and professional, social and service, publicity, and outreach committees. He said the diversity of ideas from differing student expertise in materials, integrated sciences, life sciences, and engineering is the greatest benefit of the lab.
"Teams don’t just delegate the work to each other based on their majors. Instead, the work is delegated based on the skills the student wants to learn," Mora said.
It is this type of peer learning that has placed living-learning communities high on the priority list of undergraduate education leaders at Virginia Tech. "Drs. Blanc and Lewis have built a curricular structure that engages first-year students with the challenges of problem-solving, teamwork, and time management," said Jill Sible, assistant vice president for undergraduate education at Virginia Tech.
Others have taken notice, too. The National Resource Center for First- Year Experiences and Students in Transition in February honored Blanc for her leadership on the living-learning community with its 2017-18 Excellence in Teaching First-Year Seminars award.