VCU Engineering community engagement leader honored by Cary Elementary

Portrait of Jenilee Stanley-Shanks
Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, director of government and community outreach at VCU Engineering.

Michael Powell, principal of John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond, described the scene when his students got the chance to build a catapult last fall.

“It was messy,” he said. “It was noisy and it was fun and it was totally engaging for students — and parents.” In short: “fantastic.”

The hands-on activity, part of the school’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Night, was led by VCU College of Engineering and organized by Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, director of government and community outreach. For her leadership in developing ties between Cary Elementary and VCU Engineering, Stanley-Shanks has been honored as the elementary school’s volunteer of the year.

“She has given of herself so selflessly,” Powell said of Stanley-Shanks.

Powell held up the relationship with the college as a model of what should be happening in K-5 education: creating “a pipeline from elementary school to college. Children need to start seeing that process early in their lives.”

College students, faculty and staff have all been involved in several community service initiatives to benefit Cary Elementary, located a couple of miles west of the university’s Monroe Park campus. Powell said, “The children that we’re talking about, literally and figuratively are a stone’s throw away from VCU’s campus.”

VCU Engineering regularly goes to Cary Elementary, with volunteers running events such as STEAM Night and Innovation Day. College staff have helped the school set up a new computer lab and are also working on a distance-learning initiative.

Cary Elementary students and teachers come to VCU Engineering, too.

They participate in project-based STEM learning that uses cross-curricular connections.

Also, for the past two years, all of the school’s fifth graders have visited the Capstone Design Expo, where college senior design and other research projects are on display. “Our children have been so intrigued by the projects,” Powell said. “Seeing that science fair for college students come alive for our children while they’re in elementary school allows them to envision a field of dreams.”

Last spring, one of those very Capstone Design projects was sponsored by Cary Elementary and was focused directly on improving the curriculum at Richmond Public Schools. A team of computer science seniors and seniors at VCU School of Business developed material for computer science instruction in elementary schools. The goal: to implement Virginia Computer Science Standards of Learning for the 5th grade classroom.

Cary Elementary teachers are among many local educators who participate in the college’s professional development programs. “It’s not a ‘one and done’ thing here or a sit-and-get activity,” Powell said. “There’s an interactive professional feedback loop” with the K-5 teachers.

Stanley-Shanks said she felt honored to be recognized as Cary Elementary’s volunteer of the year. “People are happy to work with Cary Elementary because the leadership is so passionate,” she said.