Jake Grohs
Dr. Jake Grohs

As a scholar intimately familiar with the challenges and potential of school-industry partnerships in Southwest Virginia, Dr. Jake Grohs, experienced firsthand the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked on existing connections he developed through Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Schools (VT-PEERS). 

As part of restoring these connections, Grohs, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Education, partnered with the New River Valley Regional Commission through a Vibrant Virginia grant, a statewide initiative committed to “creating a Virginia full of economic vitality,” and part of Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries strategic plan.

“Together we have an interest in essentially workforce education for youth in the community,” Grohs said. “When COVID disrupted everything, it kind of exacerbated the differences between the worlds of school and industry."

"Each group had their own sets of challenges and demands, trying to comply with safety, health and economic challenges. The opportunity to partner, the capacity to partner and even the physical ability to partner because of health and safety has pretty much been disrupted.”

According to Grohs, school-industry partnerships are “hugely important” for student internships, work-based learning experiences, and connecting students to secondary education or workforce opportunities.

Because these relationships have been upended due to COVID, Grohs and his team – which includes Computer Science graduate student Danny Mathieson and former ENGE employee, Holly Lesko, who now works as the Public Health School Liaison at the Commission on the Business Continuity Team – are seeking to understand and build capacity to help maintain connection in the face of any future disruptions.

Powell Valley
Dam on the New River, near Galax

Their efforts are guided by two primary goals: inventory disruptive impacts - the identification of barriers and opportunities school-industry partnerships before and through the COVID-19 pandemic; and building community capacity - repeating school-industry partnership elements to build and foster resilient partnerships capable of sustaining large-scale challenges.

“We’re interested in how much of those challenges are VT PEERS-specific, versus if this is an area that has been totally kind of upended by COVID,” Grohs said. “That’s the nature of the work that we’ve done: interviews with career coaches, Career and Technical Education teachers, and some school administrators, just trying to assess what are the opportunities and barriers with workforce education through COVID and beyond.”

From the interviews, three key, transferable themes of successful partnerships emerged:

  • Programming pauses can help teams refocus and enrich partnership infrastructures.
  • Invested, resilient individuals can push forward program adaptations in spite of large-scale uncertainties.
  • Innovative spaces and approaches can leverage community capacity for programming. 

Initial findings highlighted communities that persevered in the face of unprecedented times. From administrators who developed shared visions, pursued external funding and formed coalitions, to teachers, counselors and career coaches who collaborated to plan activities in a virtual environment, innovation and teamwork was apparent in the interviews conducted by Groh’s team. They’re now working to make progress on their second guiding goal: community capacity.

“We’re working with the Regional Commission to convene with schools and educators, to think about what could be some value added, what could we do to try to start building capacity for STEM experiences, to fill in some of the gaps,” Grohs said.

“In some cases, programs were already innovative and continued, but we want to revitalize anything that needs it, and continue to build upon viable pathways, mitigating any damage potentially caused by COVID.”