Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 2
Winter 1992


Fostering creativity early

Parents, teachers, and American businessmen need to foster more creativity and flexibility rather than insisting on showing everyone from the youngest child to the new worker the "right way" to do something, according to Janet Sawyers, a professor of family and child development at Virginia Tech.

Studies show that as American children grow from toddlers to adolescents, creativity decreases. It's a phenomenon that can be reversed, or at least slowed, Sawyer says in her new book Creativity in Early Childhood Classrooms, co-authored with James D. Moran III, a former Virginia Tech faculty member, and Deborah W. Tegano, a former student, both now at the University of Tennessee.

"We set up these nice problems and tell children there is always a right answer," Sawyers says. "We don't let them find the problems and, as a consequence, as adults they don't know how to identify the issues and problems facing our society."

For example, Sawyers says, when children first start expressing themselves through art, parents and teachers should let them do whatever they want, rather than moving them into formal training or trying to show them the way something should be drawn. That lesson can be expanded into any area of the curriculum. People need to "play around" with something new "before we start learning the rules," Sawyers says.

Sawyers sees the effects of the way our system teaches the rules too early in Virginia Tech students raised on a steady diet of true-false quizzes and multiple-choice tests. "When you give them an essay exam they really have trouble," she says.

Sawyers and her co-authors attempt in the book to give preschool and early elementary teachers techniques to identify creativity in children, and then methods to enhance those skills while following established curricula.

"There are times in school and in society when we need to conform, but there are also times when we need to know how to look at things differently from everyone else," Sawyers says. "That is what science is--finding the problems as well as their solutions. That's what invention is--discovering what needs to be done, as well as devising a way to do it."

Chemists refine cancer drug

Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. has patented a water-soluble derivative of the cancer-fighting drug taxol developed by Virginia Tech chemistry professor David Kingston and graduate student Zhiyang Zhao. The three drugs covered under the patent potentially could produce fewer side effects in patients taking taxol.

Taxol, which comes from the bark of the relatively scarce and slow-growing Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), fights cancer tumors by suspending cell growth and inhibiting cell division. It has been demonstrated effective against ovarian cancer and breast cancer, and shows promise against some forms of lung cancer, melanoma, and colon cancer. "Problems with taxol are supply and solubility," says Kingston.

In order to get taxol into the blood stream so it can reach the organs, the drug has been administered in an emulsion with a substance that produces allergic reactions in some patients. The three drugs covered by the patent are soluble in water, so an emulsion is not necessary. The Virginia Tech-produced drugs have proved effective in biological trials.

Engineering for global warming

When global warming is mentioned, civil engineering professor Chin Kuo is not one who shrugs. Already he is investigating what can be done to prepare for the impact of a rise in sea levels as a result of the greenhouse effect and polar ice melt.

Virginia's coastal network of pipes, canals, storm sewer lines, and pumping stations may not do an adequate job if sea levels rise sufficiently, Kuo says. Higher sea levels would also make estuaries and possibly coastal drinking water saltier as sea water is pushed further up river, into marshes, wetlands, and other coastal areas.

Shorelines may be further eroded, reducing beachfront property values. Existing wetlands may be inundated, and new wetlands created. Saltier estuaries would bring not only ecological, but economic disruptions because the seafood industry depends heavily on marine life in the estuaries.

These changes, of course, would not come all at once, but occur gradually, over a period of 50-100 years. Still, Kuo says, it is vital to understand what can happen and what can be done to prepare.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Kuo is developing computer models to investigate various engineering methods to control flooding and salinity intrusion. The Rappahanock River estuary is used as a case study. One possible solution would be to build dams upstream to store freshwater that would be continuously flushed into the river to counter salinity increases. Another method could be to build tidal barriers such as dikes or locks to reduce the flow of incoming seawater.

The most effective solutions from an engineering standpoint may not turn out to be economically or ecologically feasible, Kuo adds.

"You're not just talking about a new dam or a new reservoir, you're talking about entire river basin planning and management. Social, economic, and ecological issues will also have to be addressed."

Though few municipalities are rushing in to make changes, several have become aware of the potential problems and are concerned about long term planning. Kuo has already conducted studies for the Environmental Protection Agency of three different low-lying coastal communities in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. The question, he says, is whether systems should be designed now to take into account future increases in sea levels, or retrofitted when the sea level rise occurs.

Exporting by computer

Manufacturers and small agricultural concerns located deep in rural areas always have struggled to get merchandise to the market, but now a Virginia Tech Extension program, in conjunction with similar efforts in a dozen other states, is using the computer to help producers find niches in the United States and scores of foreign countries.

Carroll County Extension agent Gary Larrowe is heading the Going Global project--now in its second year--with offices in Washington, Lee, Carroll, Appomattox, and Halifax counties, and soon Frederick County. The program has helped some 200 companies, individuals, and agricultural associations since its inception more than a year ago. "We're marketing rural America," Larrowe says. "We have a lot of good products and we need to get them to the marketplace."

The heart of the program is the computer, which links with systems around the world in a search for trade leads, agents, distributors, and buyers. For instance, last year Larrowe spotted someone looking for regular shipments of shittake mushrooms. But the buyer wanted the mushrooms year round, an impossibility for a Virginia grower because the season runs from April through October. He posted a message on the computer network asking for help and eventually hooked up with California, where the growing season runs from October through April. Now, a Virginia grower and a California producer are providing the full-year service the buyer wanted.

Another time, Larrowe sent out a message on the system looking for customers for 2,000 acres of cabbage in Carroll County. A short time later, he got a call from someone in Dublin--Ireland, not Virginia--who had spotted the notice. That deal did not work, but the contact holds promise for the future.

A primary objective of the project continues to be education. American agriculture depends heavily on exporting for stabilization, but traditionally the largest organizations have accounted for 80-90 percent of those exports. Now Extension is trying to show the smaller farmers and manufacturers they can profit from foreign trade, as well. "There's an international market for just about anything," Larrowe says. "We're making them aware there are opportunities."

Ophthalmology for animals

Contact lenses for near-sighted horses. Cataract surgery for canines. Eye cancer treatment for cows. That's all just part of a day's work for veterinary ophthalmologists J. Phillip Pickett and Kay Schwink, assistant professors in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Virginia Tech's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Each year hundreds of cases are referred to the Veterinary Ophthalmology Service at Virginia Tech's Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Eye care is a rapidly growing specialty in the $5-billion animal health care field.

Veterinary ophthalmologists can do many of the same things for animals that can be done for people, but they also face unique challenges. For one, animals can't read eye charts and they can't tell the doctor what is wrong with their vision. And while human ophthalmologists concentrate on one species, veterinary ophthalmologists have to learn a wide variety of optical systems--from the billiard-ball-size eyes of a horse to the BB-size eyes of a bird.

Still, the veterinary ophthalmologists perform procedures, such as cataract surgery, all too familiar to people, particularly the aged. The animal eye doctors remove the cataract, just as is done with humans, but have yet to perfect installation of a lens implant, which tends to slip around in the eyes of animals. Nonetheless, removal of the cataract does the trick for most animals. "Some of those dogs can go back to catching frisbees and catching balls," Pickett says.

Dogs occasionally are fitted with contacts, but the care required discourages most people. In addition, soft contact lenses are used in numerous species to deliver medication to infected eyes.

Pickett and Schwink are excited about the growing interest in veterinary ophthalmology, and Pickett thinks the importance of the field is expanding because pet owners value their sight so much. "People want to see," he says. "People want their pets to see."

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 14, Number 2 Winter 1992