With power of big data, student’s startup aims to halt famine, food insecurity in Africa

Tatenda Ndambakuwa grew up in Zimbabwe, and vividly remembers the country’s food crisis in 2008 that left her and millions of others facing starvation. Now, Ndambakuwa, a junior double majoring in math and physics at Virginia Commonwealth University, is seeking to prevent future famines in Africa with the power of big data.

Ndambakuwa, a student in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is co-founder of a startup that is developing a mobile application to allow African farmers to upload data about their farm’s livestock and crop management, seed and feed access, milk production analysis, cattle pricing and other data points. The app will allow for real-time analyses of Africa’s food production system, allowing policymakers and others to make the system far more efficient.

“We hear about all these famines or food insecurity or places where there’s not just enough food, but Africa’s a continent where agriculture is the biggest revenue-generating industry,” Ndambakuwa said. “So why are we not producing enough food for the people? For those countries that are producing the food, why aren’t they sending it to those who need it the most?”

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New capstone collaboration: Engineering and business students join forces to build startups

From left, Wesley Bosman, Majid Al Ashari, Jon Dyke, Marcus Massok, Ashraf Al Gumaei, James Walters and Justin Artis (not pictured) are one of 11 interdisciplinary teams of engineering and entrepreneurship students collaborating on capstone projects this year. They are designing — and commercializing — a wearable cardiac arrest detection device. (Courtesy photo)

Students in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s Capstone Design course are building entrepreneurship skills alongside students in the VCU School of Business thanks to a new program that teaches engineering and business students how to create a startup.

VCU Engineering’s yearlong Capstone Design course immerses all senior engineering students in the hands-on process of solving real-world problems. This year, 11 VCU Engineering Capstone Design teams have also joined the business school’s two-semester entrepreneurship capstone course, New Venture Strategy and Initiation, to learn the process of launching a new company. The goal is a cross-disciplinary learning experience that results in innovative products — and viable platforms for getting them to consumers. The engineering and business students will team up to present their innovations at the School of Engineering Capstone Expo on April 28 at VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.

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Study co-authored by VCU undergraduate reveals new insights into the dining habits of toucans

The keel-billed toucan was one of two species of toucans that were documented by the team to prey upon eggs of ground-nesting birds in Costa Rica.

While Toucans’ diets consist primarily of fruit, new research co-authored by a Virginia Commonwealth University biology major suggests the bird species’ dining habits are actually more opportunistic than previously believed and include the eggs of ground-nesting birds.

Maria Vera, a student in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was part of a small team of undergraduate students and researchers who traveled to Costa Rica last summer for a nine-week National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to conduct a nest predator study.

As part of the study, the team built artificial bird nests on the forest ground and monitored the fake nests with camera traps. The cameras picked up two species of toucan descending to the ground to consume the eggs, marking what the team believes may be the first report of the bird preying upon nests on the forest floor.

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Making headlines: VCU journalism students are covering the General Assembly for 90 news outlets and feeding stories to the Associated Press

On a recent morning at the General Assembly, a Virginia Senate subcommittee considered legislation backed by the oil and gas industry that would keep chemical recipes used in fracking confidential as trade secrets. Among the lobbyists, activists and others observing the debate, Virginia Commonwealth University senior journalism major Tyler Hammel was listening carefully and taking notes.

Hammel, who was covering the meeting as part of the Capital News Service program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, quickly filed a news article about the meeting, “Panel amends and OKs bills on hiding fracking chemicals,” which was published by the The Daily Progress in Charlottesville and RVA Hub in Richmond.

“Covering the General Assembly is pretty hectic but rewarding,” Hammel said. “It’s almost like triage in a way because there’s no way you can possibly cover everything, so you have to make decisions about what is most important to you and what you think will get the most attention.”

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VCU student awarded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship

Alex Morales.  Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Alex Morales.
Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Alex Morales, a sophomore fashion merchandising student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, will study in Italy this semester with support from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program.

“In Europe, fashion is everywhere,” Morales said. “It’s such a global industry. It brings people together, nations together.”

Morales will study at the European Institute for Design (Istituto Europeo di Design) in Florence, and plans to take advantage of every formal and informal opportunity to develop his fashion industry sense.

Gilman scholars receive up to $5,000 to apply toward their study abroad or internship program costs. Students work with the VCU Education Abroad office and the National Scholarship Office to develop competitive applications.

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The art of expression: VCU student gives back to the community through art, activism and service

Angelique Scott.  Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

Angelique Scott.
Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

For someone who five years ago had no interest in applying to Virginia Commonwealth University — and hadn’t even heard of its School of the Arts — student Angelique Scott has given much to the university and the surrounding community during her time here.

Scott’s high school art and ceramic teachers had attended the VCU School of the Arts and persuaded her to apply.

“Not only did I not think that I would be accepted, but I also did not expect to receive as many grants and scholarships for my education,” Scott said.

The one thing Scott did know was that she wanted to study ceramics. As far back as she can remember, the Brooklyn native has loved art. Every Christmas, she received some sort of gift that allowed her to explore the world of art — from paint and an easel to a sewing machine and a trumpet.

“Whether it was fashion, painting or music, my passion for the arts has always been there,” she said.

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How I got the job: Devin Baker, once homeless, is now an art director at one of North America’s largest advertising agencies

Devin Baker.

Devin Baker.

Devin Baker went to New York in 2007 to advance a budding career in the entertainment industry. When he arrived, he found his housing arrangement had fallen through, leaving him without a place to live.

“Some things didn’t work out with family that I had in the area,” said Baker, 32, now an advertising student in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I ended up homeless for a little while until I found a room for rent in Brooklyn.”

It was an early experience in Baker’s long and circuitous path toward a career in advertising. He spent seven years in New York, mostly working at Universal Records, before moving to Richmond and going back to school at VCU. This past spring, he landed a summer creative internship with the advertising agency BBDO, and turned it into a full-time job as an art director by the end of July.

He views it all as a series of steps.

“I worked toward a specific goal — getting into VCU, getting the internship,” Baker said. “I would accomplish that step and keep going to the next thing.”

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Meet some of the remarkable students who are receiving their degrees this December

Pride will be the primary emotion on display at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Dec. 10 commencement ceremony in the E.J. Wade Arena of the Stuart C. Siegel Center. The 2,000-plus students graduating that day have accomplished something monumental in their lives — whether it’s a bachelor’s degree, a master’s or a Ph.D. — and along the way they’ve traveled the world, held down internships, met new people, contributed to their community and put countless hours into gaining new knowledge in their chosen fields. Below, we share the stories of some of VCU’s newest graduates.

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VCU reaccredited as Bicycle Friendly University by League of American Bicyclists

Photos by Jonsette Calloway, Parking and Transportation

Photos by Jonsette Calloway, Parking and Transportation

As president of the Cycling Club at VCU, Alan Hartmann has an eye for all things two-wheeled.

“Everywhere I look, I see something that encourages cycling,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with VCU’s desire to have safe cyclists.”

The League of American Bicyclists agrees, awarding Virginia Commonwealth University silver-level recertification as a Bicycle Friendly University. VCU is the highest-ranked Virginia college or university under this program.

“We are very pleased to reach the silver-level distinction yet again, while still holding the highest rating of any university in the state of Virginia,” said Craig Willingham, fleet and interim transportation manager in the Office of Parking and Transportation. “The certification process is not easy, which is why I am proud of our team’s efforts and dedication to this process.”

VCU was first certified in 2012, and improved to silver in 2014.

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Teacher Tales: Participants in the School of Education’s Richmond Teacher Residency program share lessons they’ve learned in city school classrooms

Grace Giampietro, a graduate student in the VCU School of Education who is participating in the Richmond Teacher Residency program, teaches a third grade special education class at Linwood Holton Elementary School.  Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.

Grace Giampietro, a graduate student in the VCU School of Education who is participating in the Richmond Teacher Residency program, teaches a third grade special education class at Linwood Holton Elementary School.
Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.

For the past five years, a partnership between Richmond Public Schools and the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education has prepared 77 new teachers who have made an immediate impact in 24 of the city’s most challenged public schools.

The Richmond Teacher Residency program is a highly selective urban graduate teacher residency program that aims to create a sustainable pipeline of highly effective teachers who are committed to the students of Richmond Public Schools for the long term.

“Despite overwhelming research that teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student achievement — and that teacher effects on student learning have been found to be cumulative and long-lasting — poor and minority students consistently are taught by the least prepared, least experienced teachers,” said Therese A. Dozier, Ed.D., director of the RTR program.

“This results in a constant churning of teachers in urban schools that comes with a huge price tag — $6 million each year for Richmond Public Schools, according to the 2014 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future ‘Teacher Turnover Calculator’ — and, most importantly, the cost to students in terms of the lack of stability in schools and its negative impact on student achievement,” she said.

The RTR program is designed to end these educational inequities. Similar to a medical residency, the teachers co-teach alongside a Richmond Public Schools master teacher for a year, receive extensive mentoring and support, earn a master’s degree in education, and commit to teach at least an additional three years in Richmond Public Schools.

“Teachers who are unprepared in curriculum, teaching methods, child development, and with no student teaching experience leave at twice the rate of teachers who have had this training,” Dozier said.

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