Group of students working in lab.

Alpha Lab: Engineering at Buford

Alpha Lab: Engineering at Buford Middle School

Kori Ross demonstrates a generator during Sec. King's visit to Buford. Photo courtesy Daily Progress/Andrew Shurtleff
Photo courtesy Daily Progress/Andrew Shurtleff

Engineering in middle school? Yes, if that school is Buford Middle School. Working with the University of Virginia, the Smithsonian Institution, and other area school divisions, Buford Middle School has pioneered an engineering curriculum to take advantage of its state-of-the-art facilities.  We want to give today’s students a glimpse of their future world.

Invention Kits: The Building Blocks of our Curriculum

Brendan Martin with a group of students looking at computer and circuitryBuford’s engineering program is based on a class originally taught at Princeton University. It shows how key scientific breakthroughs shaped the United States and the world. Working with the Smithsonian Institution, our teachers, students, and community partners have developed “Historical Invention Kits.” These kits teach important science concepts by recreating key inventions from American history. Students learn about these inventions and then use modern advanced manufacturing technologies (such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, and  computer-aided design using the SolidWorks software) to reconstruct and reinvent these historic breakthroughs. Buford engineers present at the Smithsonian in D.C.By studying inventions such as the electric motor, the telegraph, the telephone, the electric light, the electrical power grid, and radio, students gain a hands-on understanding of electromagnetics, circuitry, and the engineering design process. Each “invention kit” builds on previous knowledge – just as the inventions themselves did.

Buford engineers — both teachers and students — have presented their student-driven learning at the National Museum of American History and at STEM educators’ conferences across the country.

High-Tech Facilities are a Model for the World

Buford science and engineering students learn in new facilities, equipped with the latest technology such as 3D printers, computer-aided design (CAD) software, digital die cutters, a laser cutter and more. These high-tech systems allow for rapid prototyping so that students can design and create – and then examine their work to make it better.  That’s the very heart of engineering.

Our facilities and curriculum have attracted international attention, from China, Japan, the Netherlands and more.  The Buford Labs were made possible not only through local support from the City of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, but also from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the Motorola Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. See full list of sponsors, below.

Student using design softtwareBuilding A Bridge to CHS & the Future

Tomorrow’s job market will reward knowledge and skills in coding, design, problem-solving, and STEM literacy. At Charlottesville City Schools, we lay a foundation for strong science and math skills for even our youngest students through the iSTEM program.  We believe that engineering is elementary!

As students head into middle school, we want to equip them with STEM skills as well as the engineering of studying a problem, designing a solution, prototyping a plan, testing the result, and then improving on the process.

CHS Zero Robotics team competes in the final round of the international competition sponsored by NASA and MIT.
CHS Zero Robotics team competes in the final round of the international competition sponsored by NASA and MIT.

Charlottesville High School is widely recognized for its students’ STEM success, as Black Knights represent our region in international programming competitions, competitive NASA programs, state robotics competitions, and more.  The Sigma engineering program at CHS prepares students for pathways to engineering studies and careers that take advantage of advanced technologies.

Buford’s Alpha engineering program is fully aligned with CHS.  Our one-semester Engineering Foundations class for 7th or 8th-graders gives a good introduction, and the year-long Engineering 1 class for 8th-graders follows the CHS curriculum and offers high-school credit.  There are no math pre-requisites and there is no application process; we want as many students as possible to begin exploring the world of engineering, so that they are equipped to thrive in the world of the future.


Charlottesville City Schools could not have accomplished the development of this program and the renovation of the engineering sciences rooms at Buford Middle School without significant support. Thanks to our many partners and donors!

Learn about partners and sponsors who supported the initial development of the facilties and program.

Charlottesville City Schools is deeply appreciative of its partnership with the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Curry School of Education. We’re equally appreciative of our work with the Smithsonian Institution and the Joseph Henry Project for Historical Reconstruction at Princeton University, and the support and partnership of The Reynolds Center and FableVision. We are proud to work alongside colleagues at Albemarle County Public Schools and Fluvanna County Public Schools.

Support for the Buford engineering program and its labs has come from the City of Charlottesville, Charlottesville City Schools, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the University of Virginia. These funds build on prior federal and foundation support, including grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the Motorola Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Work at Buford Middle School was managed by the City of Charlottesville’s Facilities Development Division. We partnered with VMDO Architects, Martin Horn CM, and Caspian Construction.

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